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...

(The entire section is 908 words.)