Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In 1967 Michael Herr, a young journalist with Esquire magazine, traveled on assignment to Vietnam. Although realizing the benefits of not needing to file a daily or weekly press release as many of his colleagues were required to do, Herr found that the complexities of the war in Southeast Asia consumed him, both mentally and emotionally. He was unprepared for the extent of his involvement and openly admits this early in the narrative. In a voice that expresses his awe, he intones: “Talk . . . about irony: I went to cover the war and the war covered me.”

Despite the initial difficulty in assimilating these experiences, Herr managed ultimately to understand and communicate them, at first in articles in Esquire, Rolling Stone, and New American Review and, later, in New York magazine and Crawdaddy. Greatly revised, these articles form the core of the narrative that was to appear ten years later as Dispatches. In the tradition of Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, and Ernie Pyle, Herr captures the essence of the American soldier’s experiences in combat. Yet he also goes beyond these earlier writers; by employing the genre of New Journalism, Herr reveals himself by depicting “the way it was” (to borrow a phrase from Hemingway) for the soldiers and by exploring the history of the war and his own reaction to these experiences. Herr summed up the uniqueness of this genre when he noted in a 1979 interview that he considered himself “a writer, not a journalist.”

In focusing most directly on the soldiers, Herr attains an immediacy—yet a formlessness—that reflects his initial perception of the war. Vignettes of varying length permeate the narrative. The shortest consists of two lines: “Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.” Longer ones are several pages: the story of Davies, a helicopter gunner stationed at Tan Son Nhut but living in Saigon with his Vietnamese mistress. The longest stretch over a chapter: The chapter focusing on Khe Sanh repeatedly refers to Mayhew and Day Tripper, a soldier with a profound fear of night and an obsession with time. These stories, like the...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Michael Herr’s Dispatches is a collection of reportage written when the author was special assignment correspondent for Esquire. His assignment was the Vietnam War; not, as he interpreted it, the military strategy, or the politics of the war, but what it is like to be in the midst of a war—how brutal the experience is and how exciting. Because it is written from this vantage point, Herr’s book deserves a special place on the crowded bookshelf of volumes concerning America’s most disillusioning war. The novels, the historical works, the memoirs of generals are all necessary to the avid student. But there are few books which, like Herr’s, are dedicated to the feelings of the common conscripted soldiers who really fought the war, men who were unlikely to write about their feelings and experiences when they returned—if they returned.

The author is what sociologists call a “participant-observer.” He is a student of military life without being a soldier; he studies that life by temporarily becoming part of military units in and out of combat, without becoming a combatant himself. In this sense Herr’s book parallels William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society, a study of the social structure of an Italian slum. However, although Herr’s relations with American soldiers are very much like Whyte’s relations with his street corner society, the aims of the two authors are entirely different. First, Whyte’s aims are theoretical, while Herr’s are emotional; second, Whyte is studying street corner society only, while Herr is interested as much in his own reactions as he is in the stories of the soldiers he writes about.

Thus Herr’s book has no overall theoretical or narrative structure. Rather, it is a series of impressions—narrative and personal glimpses of the war. The chapter entitled “Illumination Rounds” is perhaps the purest example of Herr’s method. It consists of twenty “stories,” each presumably an illumination round, an anecdote designed to give special insight into the war the way a tracer bullet makes a target easier to see at night. In one story, the author is in a helicopter that takes fire and has to reland; in another, battle-fatigued soldiers have an unsatisfactory encounter with some Red Cross girls; in still another, a noncommisioned officer recalls a bizarre meeting between a soldier and a girl at Fort Bragg. All of these anecdotes are written with an immediacy and power that requires little comment:As the troops filed out of the helicopter, the [Red Cross] girls waved and smiled at them from behind their serving tables. “Hi, soldier! What’s your name?” “Where you from, soldier?” “I’ll bet some hot coffee would hit the spot about now.”

Or,And the men of the 173rd just kept walking without answering, staring straight ahead, their eyes rimmed with red from fatigue, their faces pinched and aged with all that had happened during the night. One of them dropped out of line and said something to a loud, fat girl who wore a Peanuts sweatshirt under her fatigue blouse and she started to cry.

Glad as one is to have so many accurate glimpses of a terrible war, one cannot help demurring that they are glimpses only. Each taken singly is a true snapshot of the war, for Herr has the ability to place us down in the middle of an incident; he has the talent of a true novelist. However, after not too many pages the reader may tire of the constant parade of superior anecdotage that leads nowhere. What do all these anecdotes mean, taken together? For if they have no total meaning, there is little point to a book full of them. From this point of view Herr’s work seems more like a notebook—a series of individual entries in search of total structure and the added meaning that such structure would give them.

As has been said, Herr differs from the prototypal “participant observer” in that he deals with emotions, not theories. He also differs in that he is as interested in his personal reactions to the war as he is in the reactions of those he observes; in many selections there is a clear difference between the personal and the descriptive. The first anecdote from “Illumination Rounds” demonstrates this difference. Herr is talking about his trip in a helicopter transporting replacements. He is new, excited. The helicopter begins to take fire; a soldier across from him and a door gunner die; the pilot is mortally wounded. The dying pilot settles the helicopter down on its original landing zone. Herr’s observations are so acute that the reader feels present at the incident. The first indications that the helicopter is taking fire are frighteningly depicted: “We...

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Dispatches Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Cobley, Evelyn. “Narrating the Facts of the War: New Journalism in Herr’s Dispatches and Documentary Realism in First World War Novels,” in Journal of Narrative Technique. XVI (Spring, 1986), pp. 97-116.

Hellmann, John. “The Hero Seeks a Way Out,” in American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam, 1986.

Hellmann, John. “Memory, Fragments, and ’Clean Information’: Michael Herr’s Dispatches,” in Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction, 1981.

Jones, Dale. “The Vietnams of Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien: Tales of Disintegration and Integration,” in Canadian Review of American Studies. XIII (Winter, 1982), pp. 309-320.

Van Deusen, Marshall. “The Unspeakable Language of Life and Death in Michael Herr’s Dispatches,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction. XVI (Winter, 1983), pp. 82-87.