The NFB Reading List – Dispatches

Dispatches – Michael Herr (1977)


The books that I have covered so far have all been generally coherent and simple enough works, with a clear theme and narrative focus. They all generally had a goal and some kind of lesson they were trying to get across to the reader in a very clear manner. The next one is a bit different.

Dispatches is the journalistic accounts of Michael Herr, on his time in Vietnam and the things that he experienced there: his interactions with soldiers, daily life in South Vietnam and his brutal first person view of war.

Dispatches is a little hard to describe or review accurately, because it isn’t a typical book about war, or journalism. What it is, is a random mix of various things, with no single narrative focus. It’s a recollection of a series of unconnected events, jokes, stories, anecdotes, half-remembered memories and incontrovertible facts.

It is not a book about how the Vietnam War progressed at all, such is the unrelenting schizophrenia of the writer’s words. Time has no meaning in Dispatches, as the author goes from place to place, soldier to soldier, story to story, frequently out of his mind on drugs and with sometimes little tangible realisation of the surroundings that he is in. No introduction, no act structure, no epilogue. Michael Herr opens his account in the middle of the viciousness and inhumanity of Vietnam and stays there, mired in the psychedelia and violence.

Herr presents war like some kind of sickness, a mass-hallucinogen that had dragged all of its victims into this haze. Soldiers in his account come and go with great frequency, with no “characters” of any kind sticking around long enough to drive things. This is just a collection of “dispatches” after all. The stream-of-consciousness style retelling never stops from the get-go, and may be disorientating to some, but enthralling to others, who find in Herr’s words, a method of understanding and relating to the Vietnam experience, in a way that drier textbooks would not be able to do.

This is the book, the kind of writing, which drove the movie adaptations of the Vietnam story, like Full Metal Jacket, in their style of presenting that story, with the sense that what we are seeing and hearing is just some sort of strange dream. The horror of Vietnam, in this messy, dirty, frequently despicable struggle, is there for all to see in the words of Herr, who see’s young men cut down all around him, fears for his own safety frequently, and only relates near the conclusion the fatal fate suffered by many of his colleagues in the course of the fighting.

It really is hard to describe, the kind of feelings and emotions that Herr’s account imbues. It is a commentary on Vietnam that not only does not ignore the negative details – the rampant prostitution, the fatigue of America’s Army, the depression of fighting a struggle with no end and most of all, the widespread and unstoppable drug use – but simply revels in them, as a by-product and innate part of a war as maddening and destructive as Vietnam was.

Herr’s book then, leaves you with a feeling of both uncomfortableness, but also a greater understanding of just what the Vietnam War was like for the people who fought it and the people who reported it: it was a war of delirium, of savage death and colourful “trips” blending together, into a narrative that is as much a champion of stream-of-consciousness and “New Journalism” writing as any other book that pertains to those things.

There are some many individual stories or anecdotes that Herr relates, that I could not possibly hope to talk about them all, or how they influenced my thinking on Vietnam or the very nature of war itself. A few will suffice. Herr’s brush with mortality when he thinks that he has been hit, and all of the associated guilt and shame that came with it, was a potent description of the fate of civilians in a war zone. The aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassinations and the resulting recriminations and anger of black soldiers which capped off the description of Vietnam as a hopeless conflict fought by a dispirited army of unmotivated conscripts. The heartbreaking story of Khe Sanh and the troops besieged there, unable to find a moments peace from the threat of a bullet to the back, and the one soldier, so terrified of risking the uncovered dash to his scheduled evacuation aircraft, that he keeps coming back every day, illustrated to me in very stark terms the insanity of war and the effect that he can have on people.

Herr was, by his own admission, fascinated by Vietnam and the war fought there. Unlike the people he met and interviewed in uniform, he had volunteered to be there, the sort of uniqueness that marks him and his account out from the rest. In the end, his drug-fuelled journey across the war zone makes him question the very nature of humanity, the apparent hopelessness of the situation for America, and the cracks that could easily tear the country apart.

What did Dispatches teach me about war? Little on the face of it, but lots when you look closer. It taught me about the ugliness and trauma of war, the psychological damage that it can cause along with the physical. It taught me about the American failures in Vietnam from across every level, the commanders who thought that a non-volunteer force could somehow win that most brutal of hybrid wars to the private soldiers who prefer to get inebriated or wasted on drugs than fight. It taught me about the impact that Vietnam had on the minds of many, not least Herr with his clipped, random , hallucinogenic writing style and narrative.

Dispatches is not an easy book to review or describe, but it is a book that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone seeking to gain a better understanding of the more intense and personal aspects of war. It, more than any other book maybe, showed about the kind of reality that war can create in the right circumstances, and that is a valuable thing to know.

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