One of the greatest examples of war journalism ever written, Michael Herr's clearheaded yet unsparing retellings of the day-to-day events in Vietnam take on the force of poetry, finding clarity in one of the most incomprehensible events in our modern era. A National Book Critics Circle finalist and highly acclaimed upon its publication, Dispatches still retains its resonance as America finds itself amidst another military quagmire.
It takes a lot more to make a book really interesting, turning a war into a cold turkey-kind of experience gets boring after a while (i.e. after 20 pages in this case). So much so in fact, that I started cranking up the reading speed to get it over and done with, only to find much more of the same drivel. Totally useless and irritating.
I suppose in the sixties and seventies, this used to be exactly what people expected of puerile 'cult' war correspondents beating themselves on the chest, today you'd at least require some background info and insights with regards to the countries and conflicts visited to make it stick in the reader's mind. The Vietnam War doesn't really come to the fore anywhere in this book, which is unsurprising.
This is very Burroughs-esque indeed. And that should definitely NOT be taken as a compliment !
Herr's writing and tales from the grunts are top-rate and it's easy to see why this became such an iconic and influential book from Vietnam.
A couple of very minor criticisms: firstly, "Dispatches" is perhaps structured a little oddly. Herr throws the reader in at the deep end, no doubt on purpose, but perhaps it would make more sense to put the final section, on he and his colleagues at the front. Also, Herr mentions TET a lot yet doesn't really go into much detail. I was hoping for a little more there.
Those two little quibbles aside, "Dispatches" is still a great book and one very much worth reading.
Based on this book, the author wrote the script for the Stanley Kubrick film "Full Metal Jacket".
In high school I started reading some books about the war and one of them was Dispatches. I read a lot of Vietnam books in my life, but this one is the best of the best. First there's the writing style which is hard-hitting but poetic - stream-of-consciousness when the consciousness is out on the ragged edge. I realized re-reading this that my fiction writing was definitely influenced by his writing style.
Next, there's the gut cold honesty of the book, the author's ability to tell a story, and his fearless self-reflection. Particularly valuable is his analysis of his own compulsion to go to Vietnam, to voluntarily ride out with the Marines, and the dangerous romanticism of that choice. This is a man wrestling with the knowledge that he voluntarily put himself in harm's way and that there is damage from that that he'll struggle with for the rest of his life.
Also prominent are thoughts about American soldiers, particularly Marines, and all the ways they both disgust and compel him. He presents a clear picture of men and boys who are as brutal as they are compassionate and he ponders their futures.
I have always thought that the reason we've gone into recent conflicts and stayed for years is in part due to the lock-down of the press by the military. War correspondents and photographers no longer roam free. Footage and photos tend to be pretty sterilized. I suspect that if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be over if they were in our living rooms every night.
If you want to read a beautifully written, highly intelligent, and heartbreaking memoir of the Vietnam War, this is the one to read. It will inform you in ways you can't currently imagine and it will make you think differently about Vietnam, but also about our current warfare. It's a beautiful, amazing book.
I turned twelve years old in 1975, just as the Americans withdrew from South Vietnam and, shortly afterwards, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. For the previous few months I had been captivated by the seemingly interminable reports each night on the television news showing firefights, helicopter sorties and general mayhem as the war drew gradually towards it close. Of course, I had very little idea what it was all about but to a young boy it simply all looked very exciting.
The Vietnam War was perhaps the first multimedia engagement, with footage broadcast nightly to the rest of the world, courtesy of a huge corps of reporters (from both the traditional press and the burgeoning television companies who were eager to fill their news programmes with footage from the front). Michael Herr spent several years as part of that press corps, travelling all over the country in military helicopters and planes, writing articles for Esquire, Time and Life magazines.
The book is very difficult to describe – Herr effortlessly conveys the horrors of engagement, the terror and the brutality, yet also the camaraderie and sensitivity that the troops displayed, all set against the backdrop of the draft and the Civil Rights movement back home. His style is vibrant – Herr was, after all, one of the earliest and most adept exponents of what was then the emerging literary form of ‘New Journalism’. Fact written as seamlessly and engagingly as fiction.
Herr’s prose is meticulous, often veering towards the poetic, paradoxically often hitting its most purple patches when tackling the most awful subject matter. He also captures the zeitgeist of the times. Rest and recreation spells in Saigon were played out to an amazing sound track of 1960s rock, fuelled by handfuls of hallucinogens and downers. There is a wistfulness there, too (‘Of course, coming back home was a down. What could you do for a finish’), and a feeling that the rest of his life would always be coloured by his experiences in Vietnam. (‘I think that Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.’) He doesn’t glamourise war, but there is an inescapable sense that participation made combatants different from the rest of us.
As the North Vietnam Army (PAVN) feinted and eventually engaged at Khe Sanh, the Marine base there was besieged. The US committed all resources to operations at Khe Sanh, President Johnson mandating that the base be kept at all costs. Ultimately, the base was destroyed, the Marines pulled back and, the US claimed victory on the premise of casualty figures and the fact that PAVN forces withdrew suddenly afterward. PAVN forces also claimed victory, as after all, they destroyed the base and forced the Marines to evacuate. Dispataches questions the significance of the dual claims of victory and the sudden withdrawal of the North Vietnamese Army, especially in context of the Tet Offensive.
Herr's portrayals of the men who fought and reported in the war are the smaller brushstrokes that make up the bigger picture of that time and place. Herr talks and travels with Marines and other reporters, perhaps none more poignant and intriguing than that of his colleagues, Sean Flynn , Dana Stone and Tim Page. Flynn, Stone and Page were photojournalists who cut careless, romantic figures. They were each extremely intelligent, talented men whose ambitions and impulses exacted dear prices. Their legacies and fates are equally breathtaking.
Ray Porter is the American narrator who reads Dispatches. The book is either the result of giving a typewriter to an inebriated soul and/or; drugs and alcohol to a journalist. Either way, managing the text and propelling it forward had to have been a challenge. Ray Porter met the challenge, framing the material in a natural voice without caving into a hyperbolic interpretation of extreme and intense situations. There may be a mispronunciation or two ("artillery" is pronounced as "artillerary" in one instance); but over all the delivery is on point.
Redacted from the original blog review at dog eared copy, Dispatches; 03/22/2012
He was able to get up close and personal with the serving soldiers and it is here, with a backdrop of rock and roll music, the psychological effects of drugs and the general demoralization of the troops, that one gets the clearest picture of the turmoil and uncertainty that the average grunt was facing. In covering the war, Michael Herr became one of them, eating their food, smoking their joints, and sharing their bunkers as bombs fell around them. One particular story of him being the only living passenger on a chopper full of body bags was particularly harrowing.
Michael Herr guides his reader through the craziness that was Vietnam and by the end of the book I felt numb and drained. From the chaos to the inhumanity, Herr doesn’t flinch from showing us the way it was.
The sections at the beginning and end of the book are rather garbled and I did not enjoy reading what, in my opinion, represent little more than rather pretentious ramblings. However, these do not form a large proportion of the text, and the rest is very good and incredibly atmospheric. The battles at Khe Sahn and Hue are featured and I have never read anything that conveys the spectrum of experiences and views of the men involved, both soldiers and reporters, as well as this book.
A considerable achievement in fewer than 300 pages.