It is significant that Dispatches should end with a reference to writing, for it is as a writer that Herr defines himself and, ultimately, how he makes sense of his experiences in the war. Although his final words in the narrative are “Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there,” he knows that this is not literally true, and his book becomes an avenue for his readers into the complexities of those experiences. Rather than preaching a series of moralistic lessons, however, Herr simply serves as a storyteller, allowing the reader to make his own discoveries. Herr is, in this manner, fulfilling his obligations as a writer.
Herr’s foremost commitment is to the soldiers, to those whom he observes, about whom he hears, and with whom he interacts. At one extreme are those with whom he has little rapport. The reactions of these soldiers range from simple indifference to contempt, dogmatic disdain (a predictable reaction from those public affairs officers assigned to work with the press corps), and pure hatred (Krynski, a hardened marine, reacts this way when he realizes that Herr, a writer, has volunteered to risk his life for a story). Yet even when Herr’s initial response is to reciprocate these feelings, he comes to realize that his duty as a writer is to tell these soldiers’ stories. Whether overtly articulated as a demand or a passionate plea (“You tell it man. If you don’t tell it . . .”), Herr knows his obligations:And always, they would ask you with an emotion whose intensity would shock you to please tell it, because they really did have the feeling that it wasn’t being told for them, that they were going through all of this and that somehow no one back in the World knew about it.
Out of his compassion grows what one critic calls Herr’s “moral imperative”: a commitment to communicate an “extreme experience in a way that is both accurate and meaningful.”
At the other extreme are those soldiers who realize that he, as a writer, has a special importance. These troops willingly give him stories—about themselves, about their buddies, about people of whom they have merely heard. They allow him access to people and places and operations (at one point he is permitted to ride a special gunship during a night attack) normally closed to outsiders or to those who are uninitiated. This allows him glimpses of emotions and thoughts that no one else is privileged to see. They make room for him in troop carriers and on helicopters, both envying and respecting his need to move quickly to another location. In sum, these soldiers accord him special privileges out of respect for his work as a writer, and Herr reciprocates, quietly telling the stories of those he observes.
In the eyes of some...
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In revealing himself as an active narrator at the same time that he describes the people and events occurring around him, Herr takes his place with other writers of New Journalism, writers such as Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson. These writers work, as a critic of the genre notes, “not by merely reporting facts . . . but by combining the unique credibility of journalism with the self-reflexive patternmaking of fabulist fiction.” In Dispatches that combination of modes is crucial. As Herr himself says, “conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it.” Herr thus goes beyond Pyle and Hemingway in that his self-reflexivity reveals a “secret history,” one which attempts to discover a self in relation to the lives, and deaths, of the many American soldiers with whom he comes in contact in Vietnam. Admittedly incomplete, Herr’s effort to understand these experiences becomes a reflection of his effort to understand his own experience.
The complexity of the experiences, however, eludes a facile understanding. In the final chapter Herr admits that, upon his return home, he was troubled by memories during the day and nightmares during his sleep. Indeed, although it is suspected in 1979 that he is writing a novel that will become a “love story,” his two subsequent major works—narration for the films Apocalypse Now (1979) and Full Metal Jacket...
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