Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1132
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 soldiers, Herr becomes almost a godlike figure. This occurs when, early in his tour, soldiers offer him a flak jacket or helmet because he has left his own behind. Initially he believes that this is simply to protect the naive newcomer to the war. Retrospectively, he recognizes this as one of a series of gifts offered in obeisance to him. This is particularly apparent in his interaction with Day Tripper and Mayhew, the soldiers most fully developed as individual characters. Mayhew, specifically, exposes himself to personal danger several times to assure Herr’s comfort in the harshest of conditions at Khe Sanh. In telling these stories, Herr’s humility in being so honored surfaces; in relating how he learns of Mayhew’s death he cannot hide in his typically understated tones his sense of loss and frustration. Herr is, in a sense, telling his own story within the stories of the soldiers.
Yet his vatic impulse does not end simply with a depiction of the way it was for the soldiers. To be sure, he conveys the smells and sounds, the hardships of the cold and the heat, the oppressiveness of the rain and the unearthly mists vividly. Yet just as important is his search for connections, both historical and cultural. He wants to connect Khe Sanh with Dien Bien Phu in 1954, for example, or the massacre at Langvei with the slaughter that occurred in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, but officially these connections are denied. As Herr notes, “only a correspondent could give you the exact mood that attended each of the major epochs.” For this reason, and to tell the soldiers’ stories, Herr makes, according to one critic, “a conscious choice to assume the role of public artificer.”
Herr thus believes it necessary to define his work as a war correspondent. Sensing the potential oxymoron in the phrase “war correspondent,” Herr defines himself, in the long chapter “Colleagues,” as both a part of the press corps and distinct from it. On the one hand, he identifies clearly with correspondents and photographers who risked their lives to get firsthand, unfiltered news. These are the writers, like Herr himself, who would live in the field alongside the soldiers to observe the operations directly. Yet even these writers were more like Gypsies, their specific reasons for being there as various as were their particular affiliations. Herr also identifies with the correspondents who become casualties of the war, either in wounding or death, and the chapter eulogizes these men, for it is their work which has taken them into danger. Even with those pressured to file daily or weekly stories he feels a kinship and a certain sympathy: If their stories are not completely accurate depictions of operations the fault lies with external pressures, not with any intent to deceive.
Yet if there exists a brotherhood of war correspondents, Herr is not unaware of the dangers inherent in assuming that identity. The first fear—and one shared by all of his colleagues who are conscientiously devoted to telling the truth about the war and the soldiers—is that of becoming a “parasite,” making his living in the pain and deaths of the soldiers. The second fear—and the one with which Herr grapples strenuously—is that he is being drawn ever more strongly toward the insidious glamour of combat. The first fear he mitigates in the honest and accurate re-creation of the stories of the soldiers that fill the pages of his book. The second he conquers in the final pages of the chapter devoted to his colleagues. Here he records his most fully drawn story, that of Tim Page, a free-lance photographer whose near-fatal wounding only causes him to assert more vehemently the impossibility of taking “the glamour out of war.” In contrast, Herr’s choice is to return to the United States and, ultimately, to write down, for the American people, the stories of the soldiers, the war, and himself.