Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest works of non-fiction in the twentieth century, Dispatches, Michael Herr's scabrous, hallucinatory, drug-inflected, grunt's eye view of the Vietnam War melded the techniques of the contemporaneous New Journalism with those of fiction (per his admitted inclusion of composite characters) to forge an account of warfare unlike any before.
Although the book begins in 1967, with the author's arrival in Saigon, as a correspondent for Esquire, Herr's experience in Vietnam proved so powerfully disorienting, that he chose to fracture the book into a nonlinear narrative, in which chronology becomes meaningless. As he notably described his approach, "Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it."
In "Breathing In," the first chapter, Herr counterpoints the relentless mobility of a chopper-driven war, where he first absorbs the gruesome extraction of the dead from the combat-zone, with completely stoned periods in Saigon, where no one's drug of choice ever seems to be in short supply. Photojournalists Sean Flynn and Dana Stone are his fearless comrades on many of these early excursions.
"Hell Sucks" describes the grueling combat marking the siege of the Imperial City of Hue. At its conclusion, 70% of the city, including numerous historic structures, have been obliterated, and the streets are littered not only with the bodies of NVA forces, but with thousands of civilian corpses, including 5,000 in a mass civilian grave.
The self-destructive arrogance of the placement of the undermanned Khe Sanh Combat Base in the midst of five NVA divisions in the dangerously mist-bound Highlands bordering Laos is the subject of "Khe Sanh." Though legendary fighters, the Marine I Corps deployed there suffered appalling losses.
"Colleagues" discusses life amongst Herr's fellow war correspondents, including more detailed profiles of those he knew best: Flynn, the son of the Golden Age movie star, and Stone. Both ultimately disappeared in Cambodia and were declared MIA. He recounts the amazement of the grunts that these journalists have actually chosen to risk their lives covering the war when they could have done otherwise. He is moved by the stories they tell him and even more so by their intense desire to have them reach the public; many of them fill this book.
The final chapter, "Breathing Out" recounts the painful process of returning to the normalcy of civilian life, where Herr both misses the adrenaline rush of war and is interminably haunted by visions of the deaths he has witnessed. For it is the horror and obscenity of these lives lost in an insane war which Herr evokes so indelibly that have made his book a classic. To conclude, just one sample:
You could die in a sudden bloodburning crunch as your chopper hit the ground like dead weight, you could fly apart so that your pieces would never be gathered, you could take one neat round in the lung and go out hearing only the bubble of the last few breaths . . . You could end in a pit somewhere with a spike through you, everything stopped forever except for the one or two motions, purely involuntary, as though you could kick it all away and come back. . . . You could be shot, mined, grenaded, rocketed, mortared, sniped at, blown up and away so that your leavings had to be dropped into a sagging poncho and carried to Graves Registration, that's all she wrote.