As I read Dispatches by Michael Herr, there is an overwhelming sense of fear and horror. His dispatches are populated by soldiers called ‘grunts’, whose enemy was everywhere and nowhere. Their maps were blank; their names for the enemy, ‘Charlie’ or ‘VC’, told them nothing. How do you recognize them? They all wear black pajamas; they are all alien to us. They are everywhere. That’s where the paranoia began. Herr’s dispatches are disturbing because he writes from inside the nightmare, with all the tension and terror that turned these young men into killing machines. It is all the more frightening because, emptied of any concerns for justice, or ethics, or solidarity, they opened fire anywhere, everywhere. After all, who could know where or who the enemy was?
Herr’s use of brutal imagery absorbed me into his savage surroundings. From the soldier who can’t stop drooling as a result of a particularly dreadful gun battle, to the scenes of the dead, American and Vietnamese, adult and infant, on battlefields and village streets. The characters are real people in a situation that most of them neither like nor understand. They are young men who invoke the same shortcomings we all have. They are professional soldiers and act that way despite their misgivings. They push past the boundaries of fear and into the realms of heroism or insanity or death. Everyone that he introduces is individual. There are no carbon copy soldiers here. They are funny or musical or religious or delusional. I felt as though I was being introduced to people I knew throughout the book.
From time off in Saigon and Hong Kong to his time spent in a bunker during the siege of Khe Sanh, Herr covers every aspect of the war. He shows how so many soldiers were so drastically affected by the war. He describes the strange, fearful moments when at night the jungle suddenly goes silent. Herr tells tales of Marines throwing themselves on top of him with incoming fire, people he has only just met minutes or hours before that are risking their lives to protect his. This book is very descriptive and one of the best examples of this is this sentence, “Every fifth round was a tracer, and when Spooky was working, everything stopped while that solid stream of violent red poured down out of the black sky.” In this sentence Herr is retelling the feelings felt by everyone as they watched the gunships flying overhead, unleashing the fury of gatling-guns that could fire thousands of rounds per minute. Not only does Herr convey the impact of such a sight; he does it in such a manner that a vivid image is formed in the reader’s mind.
One of the more disturbing and insightful quotes in the book comes when a Marine at Khe Sanh learns that his wife is pregnant, but not with his child. Herr retells with this account, “”Oh don’t worry,” Orrin said. “There’s gonna be a death in my family. Just soon’s I git home.” And then he laughed. It was a terrible laugh, very quiet and intense, and it was the thing that made everyone who heard it believe Orrin.” This quote shows how badly some soldiers were transformed during the war. A man who used to be very peaceful and calm would now snap at the slightest provocation. He would now plan the death of his wife for cheating on him. With these examples I would definitely say that one of the strengths of this book is its vivid descriptions. The other strength of this book is probably how it covers the emotional and physical aspects of the war.
Still it is difficult to reconcile Herr’s disregard for the grunts’ brutality and his apparent admiration that surfaces. Herr feeds on the death and carnage of the battlefield. It is difficult to grudge a person for their attachment to the most exciting times of their life. Herr’s is almost an addiction to the life of the thrill seeker, but as he frequently mentions, unlike the grunts, he could always take the next chopper back to an air-conditioned hotel room in Saigon, or leave altogether. (Not that an air-conditioned room in Saigon would be necessarily safer than Khe Sahn…) He describes Vietnam as a jumbled, confused, mess of a living hell.
Herr also wrote the narration for “Apocalypse Now,” so what more do you need to know? It is crucial to understand that this book is not a political or military history of the war. Instead, Herr tried to portray the “experience” of what it was like to be in Vietnam; you won’t find a handy map and glossary in the back. (If you honestly don’t know what words like di di, zip, grunt, 16, and DMZ mean, I suggest you bone up on your history.)
There are two major downfalls to this book: rambling and fiction. His writing style, disjointed and confused, makes the book a little hard to get used to. But when you do get used to it only then can you see that Herr is trying to give the reader an accurate account rather than a moral lecture. In terms of fiction the problem with writers is that they are writers. As such they are basically dishonest. This is not Vietnam as told by a soldier. This is Vietnam as told by a journalist who is “in-country” to the precise extent he cares to be and hotfoots it out of there when the going gets rough. In the beginning of the book Herr describes the horrors of night patrol by describing his own fear. He then informs the bewildered reader that this is a bit too much for him and therefore takes his journalistic eye somewhere else. The difference between a journalist and a soldier is that the soldier can’t leave when he feels like it and so he doesn’t have the luxury of drama. Unfortunately, most of this book is drama.