Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

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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 (1987)—remain focused on the Vietnam War. In committing himself to these endeavors, as in the painful final chapter of Dispatches, Herr is poignantly reaffirming his kinship with the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam.

Herr’s Dispatches thus takes its place among the numerous important narratives that have attempted a re-creation of the compelling experiences of Vietnam, both in and out of combat. These narratives have ranged in genre from personal memoir to oral history and fabulist fiction. Interestingly, Herr’s work has been compared with Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1978), a highly acclaimed representative of the New Journalism, for both works convey a sense of confusion about the experience. As O’Brien, a former combat soldier, explains, “Vietnam was like walking a maze”; in constructing his fragmentary novel, O’Brien captures that experience and gives it, with its complex plot, an overarching structure. Herr, on the other hand, comes closer to re-creating for the reader the experience of personal and cultural confusion surrounding the war: Only the general pattern of the six chapters and Herr’s acknowledged central consciousness provide a loose coherence. In this way, Dispatches conveys a powerful impression of a person still sorting out a meaning that will encompass the stories of the soldiers whom he has come to know and respect, the confusing and frightening sense of the place, and the personal events of his tour in Vietnam. Recording these experiences, telling his and their stories, he hopes, will help not only his own understanding but also that of the American people for they, ultimately, are his readers.