Last Updated September 5, 2023.
When Hunter S. Thompson read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, he said: “We have all spent ten years trying to explain what happened to our heads and our lives in the decade we finally survived—but Michael Herr’s Dispatches puts all the rest of us in the shade.” Despite his acclaim as a war correspondent, Herr came to reject the classification of Dispatches as a work of journalism. While many writers use composite characters in nonfiction, Herr claimed to have made at least two fan favorites up entirely. This has done little to dissuade readers and critics from praising the book as one of the greatest contributions to any genre, in any era.
Herr used passages from his own book as inspiration for his contributions to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The film was based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but it was Herr’s narration (spoken by Martin Sheen) that lifted the story out of King Leopold’s jungle and into Robert McNamara’s. Reading Dispatches, one can see how liberally Coppola and those to follow have borrowed from Herr’s seminal reflection on a disastrous war.
Many of Dispatches’s most important quotes deal with the soldiers’ descent into madness and the ease with which you can strip humanity from others once you begin to feel like you’re losing your own. In the following quote, Herr considers the difference between courage and cowardice. At what point are desperate people propelled into action by fear and adrenaline, or disillusionment, rather than bravery? In the end, is it not those who maintain their rationality, despite all of the assaults against it, who are the most courageous?
So you learned about fear, it was hard to know what you really learned about courage. How many times did somebody have to run in front of a machine gun before it became an act of cowardice? What about those acts that didn’t require courage to perform, but made you a coward if you didn’t? It was hard to know at the moment, easy to make a mistake when it came, like the mistake of thinking that all you needed to perform a witness act were your eyes. (59)
Herr’s contributions to war reporting were so transformational to the genre that quotes like the following have become a ubiquitous part of the modern notion of Vietnam. We know the concept of sovereignty was lost to shifting borders and covert invasions, the people blurred into single entities identified by pejoratives, and the soldiers’ musings on philosophy and morality became more perverse the longer they were in the jungle. When we look back on the dissociation and the rage associated with the era, it is almost as though Herr is describing it to us, even if we’ve never read his words before. Consider the impact of his words on readers who had never heard war described like this, and how we now expect war stories to be told like this, by the “soldier-poet,” the self-aware witness who is traumatized into depravity.
We took space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality. Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop. (63)
We also knew that for years now there had been no country here but the war. (11)
There wasn’t a day when someone didn’t ask me what I was doing there. Sometimes an especially smart grunt or another correspondent would even ask me what I was really doing there, as though I could say anything honest about it except “Blah blah blah cover the war” or “Blah blah blah write a book.” Maybe...
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we accepted each other’s stories about why we were there at face value: the grunts who “had” to be there, the spooks and civilians whose corporate faith had led them there, the correspondents whose curiosity or ambition drew them over. But somewhere all the mythic tracks intersected, from the lowest John Wayne wetdream to the most aggravated soldier-poet fantasy, and where they did I believe that everyone knew everything about everyone else, every one of us there a true volunteer. Not that you didn’t hear some overripe bullshit about it: Hearts and Minds, Peoples of the Republic, tumbling dominoes, maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever encroaching Doodah; you could also hear the other, some young soldier speaking in all bloody innocence, saying, “All that’s just a load, man. We’re here to kill gooks. Period.” Which wasn’t at all true of me. I was there to watch. (24)
We never announced a scorched-earth policy; we never announced any policy at all, apart from finding and destroying the enemy, and we proceeded in the most obvious way. We used what was at hand, dropping the greatest volume of explosives in the history of warfare over all the terrain within the thirty-mile sector which fanned out from Khe Sanh. Employing saturation-bombing techniques, we delivered more than 110,000 tons of bombs to those hills during the eleven-week containment of Khe Sanh. The smaller foothills were often quite literally turned inside out, the steeper of them were made faceless and drawless, and the bigger hills were left with scars and craters of such proportions that an observer from some remote culture might see in them the obsessiveness and ritual regularity of religious symbols, the blackness at the deep center pouring out rays of bright, overturned earth all the way to the circumference; forms like Aztec sun figures, suggesting that their makers had been men who held Nature in an awesome reverence. (124)
There was a special Air Force outfit that flew defoliation missions. They were called the Ranch Hands, and their motto was, “Only we can prevent forests.” (125)