Dispatches, by Michael Herr

My Copy: 9780679735250 (image from npr.org, link to recently published version)

I blame my incessant watching of Apocalypse Now for making me read this book at this moment…though it wasn’t a hard sell. I’d wanted to read it for some time, and I’m glad I did.

Dispatches is kind of an experience, and a much different book than I expected. I’ve read memoirs that have the writer talk about themselves in the first person all the time, and remind you that this is someone else’s view and experience. But Michael Herr wrote this book in such a way that, unless he was really trying to describe some deep thought or stoned memory, you could almost think you were there talking to these men in the jungle and in Saigon.

Dispatches is a worthwhile read because it’s so different from standard books about Vietnam, the basic histories of the conflict where the grunts are reduced to photos or statistics. Herr spoke to everybody and anybody…and at the same time, you get a detached feeling from him. He’s not judging the Marines and the Army soldiers on the ground (or at least it’s rare); he’s making them central when it’s their turn. For example (and I think this is the heart of it…to me):

The mix was so amazing; incipient saints and realized homicidals, unconscious lyric poets and mean dumb motherfuckers with their brains all down in their necks; and even though by the time I left I knew where all the stories came from and where they were going, I was never bored, never even unsurprised. Obviously, what they really wanted to tell you was how tired they were and how sick of it, how moved they’d been and how afraid. But maybe that was me, by then my posture was shot: ‘reporter.’… After a year I felt so plugged in to all the stories and the images and the fear that even the dead started telling me stories, you’d hear them out of a remote but accessible space where there were no ideas, no emotions, no facts, no proper language, only clean information. However many times it happened, whether I’d known them or not, no matter what I’d felt about them or the way they’d died, their story was always there and it was always the same: it went, ‘Put yourself in my place.’

–pg 30-31

Dispatches goes between the fields and jungles, to Saigon, to R&R at China Beach, to hotels to stoned outings, in bunkers and defensive positions around Hue and other towns, etc. You’re on a very violent and strange road trip with Herr (and sometimes fellow correspondents) throughout Vietnam.

At the end of the book, Herr explained that trying to really nail down and explain Vietnam without all the quirks and particulars to civilians when he got home was damn near impossible. The way he describes his own experiences–with a sort of journalistic detachment and far-too-much detail at other times–I think he had a point. Like the broader 1960s, Vietnam seems to have been an experience of it’s own.

I believe I’d recommend this book for anybody wanting to do some creative nonfiction writing for sure, in that the style is so different and the approach to events, facts, and stories by the grunts. I think it’s a very human picture of Vietnam, with the guns, gore, and grit galore, not some sanitized meant-for-the-history-books depiction.

Because he’s reporting on mostly what he saw and some stories passed on by other war correspondents, it is not a broad view of the conflict. It can’t be–even Herr couldn’t be everywhere all the time, though thanks to choppers he sure gets to a lot of places!

But if you have an aversion to naughty language, I’d avoid reading it. You’d be blacking out pages of material by the time you caught every curse word with your Sharpie (but hey, it’s history, and it’s the lingo).

And I’d also recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand the Vietnam War better, and the tensions of the 1960s, and anybody interested in war memoirs. This is an interesting book, and I’ll be keeping it a long time.

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