Michael Herr left us one of the best accounts of men at war in his book, Dispatches. A reporter, he had gone to Vietnam to find a story, but had found something else that would hound him for the rest of his life.
Dispatches by Michael Herr (Knopf Doubleday, 272 pages, 1977)
As the 1967 Summer of Love unfolded, reports were emerging that the combat in Vietnam had intensified. Later, at a time when the scars upon the American psyche caused by the conflict in that distant land were deepening, there appeared what many consider to be one of the best accounts of men at war, Dispatches.
Dispatches is the edited collection of magazine articles written by the war correspondent, Michael Herr. It was published in 1977. Just more than a decade earlier, its author, then a young and curious reporter, had gone to Vietnam to file reports for Esquire. He returned a haunted man, much older than his years. It is easy to speculate that the finished book was a form of therapy, a coming-to-terms with what he had witnessed in South-East Asia. Such speculation is probably correct. Herr had a breakdown while writing it; and the length of time it took to assemble and edit the pre-existing work tells its own tale.
Forty years after its publication, Dispatches is as sobering a read now as I suspect it was upon release. The book is a stark account of Herr’s time in Vietnam, more impressionistic than chronological, more about the minutiae of war than of grand campaigns… always subjective. This is Herr’s own story as much as it is a record of the months he spent in the middle of a war zone. One of the criticisms of the book is precisely this: It is more about the writer than the war. This is true—but only partially. It is through the prism of Herr’s observations that the reader is able to encounter something of the conflict.
Herr is not anti-war, or, for that matter, pro-war. In some ways, he dodges the political controversy around the Vietnam War. What he is interested in is the ordeal of war and the individuals who are caught up it. And that includes Herr, mesmerized by what is taking place around him as much as anyone. Perhaps there is always an element of an adventurer in a correspondent who heads to a war zone. One of the recurring themes in the book is, indeed, the question why he is there at all. He did not have to go to Vietnam, unlike the vast majority of combatants about whom he writes. Maybe it is fairer to say that Herr, like some of the other Press Corps mentioned in the book, needed to go to a war zone for reasons that were not altogether clear to him. The adventure that Herr underwent there, in the end, proved to be as existential as it was bloody.
There is a dreamlike quality to Herr’s writing; perhaps, a nightmare is a more accurate description of parts of his memoir. It is the reflections of the author, at times eloquently rendered on the page, which stay with the reader. This is all the more remarkable given that the eloquence of the prose sits alongside the horrors recounted. Reading Dispatches feels akin to finding oneself in a deserted bar late at night, in some out-of-way place far from home. A stranger enters, orders a drink, and then proceeds to tell a tale that you must hear through to its end, no matter how sad or how strange parts of it seem. So it is with this book.
It is easy to see why Herr was in such demand with Hollywood throughout the decades that followed his return from Vietnam. He worked on script dialogue for both Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). This is not surprising when one considers the skill with which he captures the men and mood in Dispatches: the growing madness of soldiers too long in the frontline, the battle weariness, the mess of physical injury, the drug-taking, the morbid humor—a defense against fear, the palpable despair as the prospect of returning home recedes. Predictably, given the readership for which he was writing, and the New Journalism of that era, which claims Dispatches as its own, he has a 1960s countercultural eye. If he is not as openly critical of those in charge as some, that is probably because he didn’t need to be. Merely by juxtaposing quotations from the General Staff and the G.I.s on the ground, he makes his points.
Surprisingly, there is a poetic quality to the writing. Maybe this was part of Herr’s later undoing. Not only did he experience Vietnam, he let it enter his soul. Finding himself on the battlefield, with all its terror and exhilaration, its nihilism and heroism, its loyalty and frenzy, he could not find a way back to the life he had led. Many war correspondents have written about this occurrence. A desire to go once more to a theatre of war—any theatre of war—having once returned to the ordinariness of life. But, with the fall of Saigon in 1975, there was literally no return. Instead, Herr turned inward and, through the memories set down upon the page, created his own personal war zone. Ten years into writing, it took him a long time to leave this mental Vietnam.
Herr produced little else in the decades that followed the publication of Dispatches. Then again he didn’t have to. With that book alone, his reputation was secure. He had gone to Vietnam to find a story but had found something else that would hound him for the rest of his life. As he says near the beginning of the book, he went looking for a war and it found him. And, if truth be told, it never left him.
Herr died in 2016. Video interviews of him from the latter years make for poignant viewing. No matter how upbeat the interviewer, there, before the camera, is a still-haunted man. And yet, Herr was one of the luckier ones. He came back alive; many of his fellow journalists mentioned in the book were not so fortunate, nor were many of the soldiers to whom he spoke.
Dispatches is Michael Herr’s unique testament. In it, he shines a light on part of the human condition: war. It is one of which we are still conscious today, whether it be in the events to mark the centenary of the Great War, or the reports of the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Doubtless, there will be other Dispatches for future generations, telling of wars and battles still to be waged in places not yet heard of, fought by those yet to be born.
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