Dispatches by Michael Herr
New York: Vintage International, 1991 (first published 1977) ISBN 9780679735250
Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we've all been there. When Michael Herr wrote those words to end this classic book of reportage, I imagine he little thought that, thirty years later, many would indeed have been to Vietnam, on package tours or backpacker holidays.
Dispatches is a story of a different Vietnam to that seen today, a story of being in the midst of one of the worst wars of the Twentieth Century. Herr was a freelance correspondent, and Dispatches is not his account of this time in Vietnam, but more a reflection of the War: what it did to him, what it did to the US soldiers that were there, and in some ways what it did to the USA as a nation.
When it was first published in 1977 Dispatches was quickly hailed as the best book so far about the US involvement in Vietnam: that may still be the case thirty years later. It should be remembered that in 1977 the wounds that Vietnam had caused in America were still fresh: no heroes return for the troops, no victory - in fact an ignominious retreat and loss. Herr does not go into any detail as to why that happened, as his story is about the troops and the correspondents that wrote about them.
With a fine ear for the unintentional ironies of command-speak, Herr shows us that talk of "kill ratios", "pacification" and so on were meaningless to the "grunts" that risked all to retake Hue or who fought and died at Khe Sanh. It is the regular solider who is the hero of Herr's book, with his savagery, beauty and desire to go home (or, in rare instances, stay), described with respect and care.
Whether Herr supported the War - whether he was a "hawk" or a "dove" - is meaningless in the context of this book. He knew that many ordinary troops were suffering and dying for illusory gains on a map: that when the troops left the VC would return. The US military were like Canute, trying to turn back the tide of the North Vietnamese advance.
That there is in fact no meaning at all to this waste becomes clearer as the reader progresses through the book. The centre-piece of the book is the "siege" of Khe Sanh, a pointless exercise in waste. The Marines at the base die for lack of suitable cover ("Marines don't dig"), and the NVA die because they are told to. What is described by the Generals as a "keystone" to the defence of the South is, several months later, all but abandoned by both sides. Whenever a meaning for the War might be almost discernible through the mists of propaganda and psyops, it quickly disappears, like a night stoned on weed, or changes course like the tracer rounds that curl away from the target at the last moment.
Herr writes as well about his fellow correspondents. About how you only saw the War you wanted to see. About how he couldn't understand the way some could get anything useful from interviewing Generals, just as they couldn't understand how he could get useful material from being with the troops. He describes the soldiers disbelief that anyone could voluntarily spend time in Vietnam, he describes the fear engendered by close shaves, he describes the sadness at the loss of friends. It was a strange thing being a correspondent, the friendships, fear and dreams were similar to enlisted men, but the ability to fly out of the hot zone back to Saigon or China Beach, gave the war a surreal quality that Herr has done a lot to convey with the structure of his book, which moves from overhearing Marines talk during a firefight, to the conversations of "spooks" at HQ, to the chatter of fellow correspondents over drinks at the Continental Hotel in Saigon.
I read somewhere a description of Dispatches as an anti-war book. It is, in the sense that no-one who has been involved in battle could be pro-war, but the book is alive to the fact that there are things that happen during the horror of war that are meaningful, and even at times beautiful. He quotes Tim Page, after being asked by a publisher to write a book that would "once and for all take the glamour out of war."....[Page] "I mean, how the bloody hell can you do that?.....It's like tyring to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of the Rolling Stones." This passage occurs late in the book, and by then the reader knows that Herr does not entirely disagree with Page on the issue.
What does stay with Herr are the memories - in the short last section of the book entitled "Breathing Out", he is trying to cope with the dreams, the loss (ironically) of meaning in life outside of Vietnam, and tries to find solace in his old friends. Herr was an advisor on the film Apocalypse Now, and it was a character in that film, Kilgore, who cryptically says "Someday this war's going to end." The final pages of Herr's book suggests that, for those that were there, it never will.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell