Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 327

Dispatches is a 1977 historical, biographical book written by American writer and correspondent Michael Herr. It depicts the author’s experiences in the Vietnam War, alongside journalists Sean Flynn, Dana Stone, Dale Dye, and Tim Page. Herr was a war correspondent for Esquire magazine for two years, starting from late 1967...

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Dispatches is a 1977 historical, biographical book written by American writer and correspondent Michael Herr. It depicts the author’s experiences in the Vietnam War, alongside journalists Sean Flynn, Dana Stone, Dale Dye, and Tim Page. Herr was a war correspondent for Esquire magazine for two years, starting from late 1967 to the Tet Offensive, and wrote about the most intense moments of the war. Thus, the book is considered to be a part of the New Journalism genre as well. However, Herr stated that Dispatches shouldn’t be regarded as a journalistic piece, as some of the characters and events that he mentions in the book are entirely fictional.

Herr manages to accurately portray the fear, chaos, terror, and madness that almost every soldier has felt in the combat zone and writes about the anxiety, weakness and vulnerability people can feel when they’re stripped down to their most bare essentials, fighting for survival. He notes how the war can change a person and turn them into something they never thought they could become. Occasionally, he mentions how the soldiers would try to find entertainment in various things and resort to dark humor, just so they could forget for a moment that they are actively participating in a war. However, when it comes to choosing between life and death, even the purest and kindest of souls can be consumed by revenge, cruelty, and blood thirst.

The book was published to great critical acclaim and commercial success, and Herr was praised for his raw, transcendent, and revelatory narrative, as well as his vivid and authentic imagery. Some readers, however, have stated that they find the book to be a bit too dark and graphic. Nonetheless, Dispatches remains to be one of the first books in American literature that describes the lives and the experiences of the American soldiers in the Vietnam War, with some critics branding it the best and most compassionate account of the Vietnam War to date.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 908

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 countless others that Herr relates, are told without concern for a chronological sequence; rather, one story builds on, or contrasts with, another. What is created in this organization is a powerful sense of the violence and compassion, fear and anger, confusion and courage felt variously by the individual soldiers. From the story of the “always smiling,” youthful Marine with the incongruously aged and “blazed-out” eyes who cannot leave Khe Sanh because of his irrational short-timer’s syndrome to that of the young American-Indian soldier who unselfishly volunteers for a potential suicide mission, what emerges is the variety of emotional reactions to combat.

A second pattern of meditations, about Vietnam itself and about the military and political conduct of the war, complements the stories of the soldiers. Topographically, Khe Sanh is both familiar and eerie, existing “among triple canopies, where sudden, contrary mists offered sinister bafflement”:The Puritan belief that Satan dwelt in Nature could have been born here, where even on the coldest, freshest mountaintops you could smell jungle and that tension between rot and genesis that all jungles give off. It is ghost-story country.

Yet if this is a place where reality seems distorted, the reason for the surreal quality lies not always in the land and the climate. On the one hand, Herr’s own rapid movement from location to location—aided by the ubiquitous helicopter—seems to disorient the reader as much as the shift from one vignette to another. On the other hand, Herr is frustrated in his attempts to ascertain the truth about the operations from official sources. Whether in an individual interview with a high-ranking officer or at the “five o’clock follies” (the derogatory phrase used to describe the daily press briefings in Saigon), the best he can hope for is a partial truth.

The structure of the narrative suggests the truth that Herr ultimately recognizes: that he is involved, to varying degrees, in all that he observes and learns, whether it be about the soldiers, Vietnam, or himself. Divided into six chapters, the central four (“Hell Sucks,” about the operations at Hue; “Khe Sanh,” “Illumination Rounds,” and “Colleagues”) all present stories, generally linked thematically, that focus on people and events surrounding Herr. Herr is thus a character in these vignettes, but he is also an observer who must report others’ experiences. In the first chapter, “Breathing In,” however, Herr is affected more immediately by the diverse stories that he is told or that he observes directly. Here the author is often personally involved, as in the short story in which he panics when he mistakes a bloody nose for a gunshot wound, or, later, when he realizes that during one firefight he “wasn’t a reporter, [he] was a shooter.” These five chapters, comprising 250 of the book’s 260 pages, represent an accumulation of varied experiences that reflect Herr’s time in Vietnam.

Balancing with the first, the sixth chapter is appropriately titled “Breathing Out.” In this ten-page coda, Herr interweaves stories of his departure from Vietnam and memories of the soldiers and his own experiences, and culminates with his frustrating attempts to deal with those memories. Herr concludes that he must “write down some few last words and make the dispersion”; he must, he realizes, share his perceptions with the American people.

Dispatches

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1918

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 were all strapped into the seats of a Chinook, fifty of us, and something, someone was hitting it from the outside with an enormous hammer.” The description of the aftermath is equally deft: “One of the door gunners was heaped up on the floor like a cloth dummy. His hand had the bloody raw look of a pound of liver fresh from the butcher paper.” At the same time, we get an inside look at Herr’s private reactions, which reflect his inexperience:As the chopper rose again and turned, [the boy’s] weight went back hard against the webbing and a dark spot the size of a baby’s hand showed in the center of his fatigue jacket. And it grew—I knew what it was, but not really—it got up his armpits and then started down his sleeves and up over his shoulders at the same time . . . and the boy was hanging forward in the straps again, he was dead, but not (I knew) really dead.

Herr has a clear view of his position as a voluntary observer of human terror and misery. He is a noncombatant in the midst of war; a volunteer—a man who does not have to be there—amidst conscripts counting their days until release. His distaste for battle is evident, as is his fascination for it. He is a man of peace, yet he makes his living from destruction and death. Herr has as his credo, “you were responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.” His responsibility for what he saw is clear: he must tell the truth, for “conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it, all it could do was take the most profound event of the American decade and turn it into a communications pudding.” He recognizes that the American soldiers he associates with think of him as unnerving, think of him as crazy, even hate him. But he does have his role to play and they understand it—to bear witness: “’Okay, man, you go on, you go on out of here . . . but I mean it, you tell it! You tell it, man. If you don’t tell it. . . .’”

Herr has no political position on the war; he is not for the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, or the Americans. He and his colleagues “all had roughly the same position on the war; we were in it, and that was a position.” In Dispatches, Americans seem to get the most criticism. They treat prisoners brutally; they carry photograph albums with snapshots of severed Viet Cong heads; they make necklaces of severed Viet Cong ears. The American high command acts stupidly and lies endlessly. However, the impression of partiality is an illusion. Herr is merely being open about the army he is following. He by no means romanticizes the NVA: “(Another rumor of those days, the one about some 5,000 ’shallow graves’ outside the city, containing the bodies of NVA executions, had just now been shown to be true).”

In Dispatches, of course, politics is definitely a minor interest. At the forefront, along with his reactions, is Herr’s portrait of the war and of the common soldier. A special horror is inherent in warfare where civilian and combatant cannot be readily differentiated. Herr brings a can of cold beer to an American surgeon. He opens the door on “a little girl . . . lying on the table. . . . Her left leg was gone, and a sharp piece of bone about six inches long extended from the exposed stump. The leg itself was on the floor, half wrapped in a piece of paper.” In another vignette, the author and a colleague are running along a street under fire when they see “a house that had been collapsed by the bombing, bringing with it a young girl who lay stretched out dead on the top of some broken wood. The whole thing was burning, and the flames were moving closer and closer to her bare feet. In a few minutes they were going to reach her.”

Death is an everyday occurence. The dead, civilian and military, line the streets, are scattered in the fields. They are piled up like logs, tied up in rubber body bags, covered with mud-splattered ponchos. Because death is so ever-present, because “every day people were dying because of some detail that they couldn’t be bothered to observe,” death comes home most powerfully in indirect ways: a paratroop ceremony in which the boots of the dead are lined up in formation; a cast-aside flak jacket on the back of which the owner had listed the months served in Vietnam: “March, April, May . . . June, July, August, September, October, November, January, February, the list ending right there like a clock stopped by a bullet.”

In the midst of these grim scenes stand the common American soldiers—the “grunts.” They are not sentimentalized; their callousness and brutality are clearly depicted:One of [the soldiers] was saying that Americans treated the Vietnamese like animals. “How’s that?” someone asked. “Well, you know what we do to animals . . . kill’em hurt’em and beat on’em so’s we can train’em . . . we don’t treat the Dinks no different than that.” And we knew he was telling the truth.

But the truth is more complicated. The American soldier is brutal, but to condemn unreservedly his brutality is to ignore the horrible pressures he is under. Continually in mortal danger, always in need of sleep, always exposed to the obscene horrors of war, he, as well as the Vietnamese, deserves some sympathy: “I think that those people who used to say that they only wept for the Vietnamese never really wept for anyone at all if they couldn’t squeeze out at least one tear for these men and boys when they died or had their lives cracked open for them.”

Michael Herr’s Dispatches reaches its heights as a personal account of the Vietnamese war. It is not so much a memoir as a series of forays in a search for truth: What does the war mean to these soldiers, to those civilians, to me? The answer to this question is necessarily complex and involves the discarding of easy answers: that we were right, that they were. It involves the rejection of black and white moral judgments, but not the suspension of judgment. In the end, the truth cannot be summarized, but it is clear that if countries win wars, people do not; they merely suffer. Nevertheless the excitement of war is undeniable. This ineradicable voyeurism is at the bottom of Herr’s attraction; this, and a need to bear witness.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119

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.

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