The only book about Vietnam you’ll ever need to read.
‘We have all spent ten years trying to explain what happened to our heads and our lives in the decade we finally survived – but Michael Herr’s Dispatches puts all the rest of us in the shade.’ (Hunter Thompson)
Dispatches is a masterful collage of stories, dialogue and prose poetry on the Vietnam War from Michael Herr, a writer who spent a year trailing the marines and army on their operations in the hills, jungles and cities of Vietnam. The book is as much an account of his own experience as the scenes he witnessed and through a subjective voice bursting with pain, humour and compassion, Michael Herr takes the reader through a tour of duty in Vietnam.
Dispatches isn’t so much a travelogue or memoirs of a journalist as it is a slice of human reality in wartime. Herr hangs out with the troops in damp bunkers, gets stoned with the exhausted and freaked out journalists and gives the ordinary soldiers in the field a voice as never before. In a world where history concerns itself with the deeds and thoughts of the generals, presidents and kings, Dispatches takes us into the realm of real history, enacted by the young men who were made to lay their lives, hearts and sanity on the line.
We enter Vietnam with Herr, a nervous war virgin, trying hard to pull off his role as correspondent in the field.
“Talk about impersonating an identity, about locking into a role, about irony; I went to cover the war and the war covered me; an old story, unless of course you’ve never heard it.”
Michael Herr makes no effort to report on what he sees, he simply explains it. The reader’s empathy and understand is so assumed that there’s a trusting, almost intimate feel to his writing, as though he was trying to let a good friend know just what the hell he experienced in Vietnam.
‘Every day people were dying there because of some small detail they couldn’t be bothered to observe. Imagine being too tired to snap a flak jacket closed, too tired too clean your rifle, too tired to guard a light, too tired to observe the half-inch margins of safety that moving through the war often demanded, just too tired to give a fuck and then dying behind that exhaustion.’
At other times he drifts into a kind of prose poetry, the images of the war tumbling loose in a stream of consciousness that makes reading the book like sipping from a dense flow of memory. Talking about being under fire, Herr writes:
‘Quakin’ and shakin,’ they called it, great balls of fire. Contact. Then it was you and the ground: kiss it, eat it, fuck it, plough it with your whole body, get as close to it as you can without being in it or of it, guess who’s flying around an inch above your head? Pucker and submit, it’s the ground. Contact.’
When we think of modern warfare we consider large military operations, the explosions, the discipline of army life and the discussions between generals at headquarters. Dispatches blows this out of the water as we learn about all the freaky aspects of the war that turned day to day life into a circus for the grunts that had to be there. Through the eyes of Herr you get the feeling that in the land of the mad the sane man is a journalist. We learn about superstitions, religious cults, about entire companies dressed up in Batman fetishes and soldiers who collect ears of dead Vietnamese – Herr gets passed a bag and a first thinks it’s dried fruit. Then he notices that it had ‘a bad weight’.
The absurdity of the entire war theatre is evident in the US army’s main strategy: wander out in the woods and hope to find the enemy. Failing that, just burn down the entire country with bombers laying napalm eggs over the trees. Their motto: We prevent forests.
The war is run on a daily basis by a whole funny farm of generals who see the war as a chance to demonstrate their own personal charm. There are generals who like to carry photographers on board to document them flying low in choppers over the enemy and firing their revolvers into the trees. Or a general Herr meets who has plans to drop a whole bunch of piranha into the rice paddies in the north: “He was talking fish but his dreamy eyes were full of mega-death.” But it’s with the commons marine grunts that Herr feels most comfortable. He takes fire with them, shares canned rations and listens to their stories.
‘Some journalists asked us what the fuck we ever found to talk to grunts about, who said they had never heard a grunt talk about anything else except cars, football and chone. But they all had a story and in the war they were driven to tell it.’
We read about all the helmet graffiti: Born to Die, Born to Lose, Time Is On My Side and, classically, Hell Sucks. Herr tells of us of soldiers who scribe entire calendars out on their helmets, crossing off each day of their tour of duty as they go. There’s a soldier who carries around for months an oat meal cookie that his wife has sent him for good luck. Herr is human enough to appreciate the mix of ‘incipient saints and realized homicidals, unconscious lyric poets and mean dumb motherfuckers’, but the message, he says, is always the same: Put yourself in my place. How else can you feel, we’re asked, ‘when a nineteen-year-old kid tells you from the bottom of his heart that he’s gotten too old for this shit?’
But Dispatches is a book as much about Herr travelling through the war and Vietnam as much as about the combatants themselves. He is always removed from the soldiers by the very fact that he doesn’t have to be there and in some sense he bears the responsibility of putting it all down on paper. Amid the legions of New York Times reporters, authors in search of a novel, hometown daily sports writers and war correspondent wannabes, Michael Herr finds himself in a circle of journalists and photographers who share a certain perspective on the war. They get stoned and listen to the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa. Vietnam, he says, is what they had instead of happy childhoods.
In Saigon, Khe Sanh and Hue, he hangs out with the likes of Sean Flynn, Tim Page and Dana Stone, the latter a photographer who liked to take pictures of his friends under fire, just so they might know what they look like when they’re terrified. He writes about his friends with a tenderness that comes only from huddling close in freezing trenches and dodging bullets together in war-torn Hue. It’s with such friends that they struggle with their sense of being a parasite on the back of so much suffering. At one point Larry Burrows, an English photographer, takes a few shots of the dead in their body bags before the helicopter takes them away. Then he turns to Herr and say:
‘Sometimes one feels like such a bastard.’
Mostly the grunts welcome Herr and his colleagues, impressed that these guys come and take risks voluntarily. They find them places to sleep, make sure they’re safe and look out for them in any they can. But there’s the odd occasion when a soldier just stares at them bleakly with pure hatred in his eyes. At first he takes it personally but later he comes to understand it goes beyond personality:
‘They only hated me, hated me the way you’d hate any hopeless fool who’d put himself through this thing when he had other choices, any fool who had no other need of his life than to play with it in this way.’ Even to the point where he overhears a grunt say to his friend after a jeep full of correspondents pulls away:
‘Those fucking guys,’ he’d said, ‘I hope they die.’
And they die. Herr has various friends injured and killed in the war. There’s Tim Page who gets hit so many times that they joke that the North Vietnamese are out to get him. Herr himself escapes injury but only after the reader has taken Dana Stone and Sean Flynn to his heart do we learn that they went missing in action while driving through the jungle. There are no melodramatics here but the grief is evident in the simplicity of the telling.
The Vietnam War was a very Sixties thing and permeated through the American cultural consciousness. Whilst a generation of hippies were blowing their minds with psychedelic drugs, hundreds of thousands of working class Americans were changed forever in the throes of tropical war. When Herr returns he concludes:
‘Out on the street I couldn’t tell the Vietnam veterans from the rock n’ roll veterans.’
Like returning from a long stint of travel, herr returns from the war having seen too much. He feels like he’s been hit by shrapnel so small that it’s like he’s ‘leaking time’.
‘My life and death got mixed up with their lives and deaths, doing the Survivor Shuffle between the two, feeling the pull of each and not wanting either very much.’
He wraps up the last page of Dispatches as though he has no idea whether anyone will understand what he’s written but that it all has to be said anyhow:
‘And no moves for me but to write down some few last words and make the dispersion, Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we’ve all been there.’