Book Review: Dispatches by Michael Herr

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By David Bayon

Since reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches, I wanted that book in my personal collection. I picked it out at a library in Madrid and for three days, I could not put it down. When I returned it, I bought it on Amazon. Now it is on my shelf, alongside the works of other great reporters such as Wilfred Burchett, John Reid, Phillip Knightley, Robert Kaplan, Alan Moorehead and Blaine Harden. 

Through his narrations, dressed with pain, humor and compassion, Herr takes the reader through a tour of duty in Vietnam, jumping from Saigon to Khe Shan to Hue. We learn from him that a correspondent’s destination is not a geographic location where a war is being fought but the very essence of destruction: war. Something so powerful, that it becomes a state of mind. And so, the word Vietnam acquires a new meaning, referring not just to the South East Asian country, but also to the surreal and alien psychological environment in which American GIs found themselves during and after the war. Even today, the name is impregnated with a doubt and a qualm not easy to digest for a country that, at the time, thought of itself as on the right side of history. The sobriety of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. certifies that.

John le Carré calls this the best book he has read on men and war in our times. Indeed, it dissects in detail the effects of combat on the soldiers: the degeneration, the erosion of ethical boundaries, the dehumanization of the enemy but also the loss of morale, the stress, the hopelessness, the heroism, and the psychological effects of the drugs and the environment in which the war was fought. In these pages we learn that war is conducted in midst, turmoil and uncertainty. And in the general uncertainty of this war, one thing alone was certain: the ever-present enemy.

But Herr's reflections go further. He lets us know the effects on correspondents as well: “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”. He demolishes the stereotype of how in the world of the mad, the journalists were the sane ones. After all, Herr and his fellow reporters often jumped out of choppers and took fire alongside marines when searching for a story. It is with the common marine grunts that Herr felt most comfortable, it was their story that he wanted to tell. He shared canned food with them, smoked joints and listened to what they said with the sound of Hendrix, The Doors or the Rolling Stones in the background. He witnessed the segregation between the black and white personnel, was the only living passenger in a chopper full of body bags, stuck it out in a bunker during a bombing raid and was able to put it all into writing using the same language the soldiers used. And the grunts dig them, impressed that these guys chose to be in hell when they did not have to be.

Nonetheless, Herr retained enough reason to appreciate the mix of “incipient saints and realized homicidals, unconscious lyric poets and mean dumb motherfuckers” that surrounded him. And what is perhaps most impressive, he never lost his humanity (it is hard to tell, but maybe reporters were the only sane ones after all), which allowed him to be constant in his message: “Put yourself in my place. How else can you feel – we are asked - when a nineteen-year-old kid tells you from the bottom of his heart that he’s gotten too old for this shit?” The waste of war.

Herr brings us closer to the young men who laid their lives, their hearts and sanity on the line with a direct language that creates an effect of nearness and intimacy between reader and author.

Vietnam was the most openly covered war in America's history and Dispatches is a testimony to the golden age of war reporting and the power of the press. Herr had contact with generals and was allowed direct and constant access to the front, being lifted from one military base to another and from one battle to the next. This way, in his reporting, the motives for the war became secondary while the brutality of the conflict filtered into everyone’s living room, stirring America’s conscience. It was a war where images changed public opinion. Images such as nine-year old Nic Ut running naked on the road after South Vietnamese aircraft accidentally dropped napalm on the village of Trang Bang; the heartbroken chopper gunner who cries in disbelief after seeing his buddy shot down or the brutal execution by the Saigon Chief of Police of a Vietcong who has just killed several South Vietnamese soldiers.

How much Vietnam drained Herr is palpable at the end of the book when he describes what it was like to be back home. The difficulty of readapting to a normal life, not just for the veterans, but for himself. The need to get out of that hell and avoid being irreversibly sucked into it but also, missing the excitement and the comradeship that is built in times of war. He exemplifies how Vietnam changed the generation of Americans that fought it and reported it.

Sensibility and style. War reporting at its best.


Michael Herr, Dispatches (Everyman's Library: 2009), 296 pages.


2 March 2011


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