Dispatches – Michael Herr, 1977
Esquire correspondent Michael Herr’s visceral and often chaotic reportage classic, this book describes the hellish Nam kaleidoscope like no other literary work.
Could this be one of the best books on war ever written? With Dispatches (affl) Michael Herr wrote a timeless and almost perfect work on Vietnam – it’s a simply must-read for any student of Vietnam war history. Michael Herr had a hand in writing the scripts for Platoon and Apocalypse Now, so you’ll be familiar somewhat with his take on the conflict, a messy moral and physical nightmare of confusion, ultra-violence, seething jungle and whacked out grunts.
Dispatches though has literary merit – whereas a lot of first-hand accounts were written by soldiers, Herr is a professional journalist and writer and writes about his experiences with stunningly lean and affecting prose. Dispatches reports famous encounters with soldiers driven mad by the killing, helicopter door gunners’ mercilessly firing into civilians and the curious disappearance of Errol Flynn’s son, Sean, into Cambodia whilst reporting on the Vietnam conflict.
Dispatches conveys the crazy horrors of Vietnam in a constantly entertaining set of stories and recollections…all the clichés are there on page – the crazed killing, LSD, choppers and napalm – only you never forget it was all for real and a reading of this book can’t help but leave you a different person afterwards. Dispatches is recommended reading for many university courses on Vietnam but it also provides just a cracking read and I remember it as one of the best texts I came across on Vietnam.
What really makes Dispatches almost an ‘experience’ more than a read is the raw, tumbled, anarchic and brutal prose employed by Herr. It’s clear that like perhaps no other embedded journalist before or since, Herr lived and died this war in every moment, every scare, every incoming round, every chopper ride. His style is almost stream of consciousness-like, packed with adjectives and stunningly evocative. Check out Herr’s description of his rides in helicopters in the chapter entitled “Breathing In”:
“In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flow in began to draw together until they’d formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going: saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other, fuel, heat, vitality and death, death itself, hardly an intruder…”
And here’s Herr’s description of the shock of the Tet offensive as witnessed by the troops and press corps alike:
“We took a huge collective nervous breakdown…Vietnam was a dark room full of deadly objects, the VC were everywhere all at once like spider cancer, and instead of losing the war in little pieces over years we lost it fast in under a week…”
Anyone familiar with Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now will see just how closely his fictional character is to the real-life Herr, a man on the perilous edge of insanity, scared half to death but dangerously addicted to the speed of Nam.
Dispatches has sections where Herr discusses the press corps’ take on everything going on, and as a reader you get to see just how closely some reporters in this conflict were able to operate in relation to the troops. Herr, like Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, took insane risks for his art, often ducking away from fire on the front line or hiding in amongst fire groups in the jungle on night patrols.
Dispatches (affl) is one hell of a ride, written by a half whacked-out crazy man who took incredible risks for the high of ‘seeing it’. But despite all its chaos, sound, speed and confusion, this read is never incoherent; in fact it’s closer to poetry: there’s death, rock music, fear, dread, joy, confusion and ecstasy all bound together into one hard, hard hitting collection.