Dispatches was praised by John le Carre as "the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time." There is a masculine mystique that revolves around wartime fear, bravery, foolhardiness. Can a war book equally engage and disquiet all readers?
Michael Herr was journalist in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. He alternated among the troops in action, "shore leave" in Saigon or Danang, and occasional visits to the States. Did he himself subscribe to the toughness, the cold-blooded killing? Did one have to do so in order to stay sane? Herr quotes the song lyrics that felt particularly poignant at the time – Hendrix, the Stones, Bob Dylan – and the reader feels the futility, the stuckness. What choice did the "grunts," the Marines doing the dirty work, actually have? The fatalism feels specifically of the late 1960’s:
Something almost always went wrong somewhere, somehow. It was always something vague, unexplainable, tasting of bad fate, and the results were always brought down to their most basic element – the dead Marine. … And you knew that, sooner or later, if you went with them often enough, it would happen to you too.
Those who don’t pose the question, "Why am I here?" have found fulfillment in weapons, in killing, in hate.
Herr’s writing is more a prose poem than a description or an explanation of events. The language is crude, death never far away. He does not spare the disgusting details, from bleak makeshift barracks to jungle decay to stumbling over corpses.
Reading Dispatches in the wake of the 2003 Iraq war brings to mind the relationship between America’s policy makers and the press thirty-five years later. "They worked in the news media, for organizations that were ultimately reverential towards the institutions involved: the Office of the President, the Military, America at war and, most of all, the empty technology that characterized Vietnam." Herr claims that only a small group of journalists were interested in discovering the real story – what it felt like to be there. They were accorded a warm welcome by the soldiers out in the field, far away from the command structures. The soldiers implore them to "tell it like it is," sure that the real story isn’t getting through.
Why did the Vietnam war bring out a peculiarly sadistic streak in its participants? Because it seemed so dehumanizingly pointless at the participants’ level? Because they were so far geographically from the constraints of convention? Or did the dehumanizing element come from above – from the distance between the Administration’s ideology and the reality of the Vietnamese jungle? Herr brings up these questions but doesn’t answer them.
This is a book that’s saturated with the subject of death – about fear of dying, about fatalistic acceptance, about the human corpse after life is drained from it. It’s not a book to like or savor. But it helps to sense the complexity of what was going on in people’s heads at the time – assassinations, expressive rock music, the loss of faith in authority – and why this war had such a ravaging effect on the American psyche.