Michael Herr, a freelance writer who had attended Syracuse University, convinced Esquire magazine to send him to Vietnam to write a regular column on the war. Arriving in 1967, he soon decided to cover the war in a different manner. In his eleven months in Vietnam he traveled the country by helicopter, searching for the action. He managed to be present at two of the major episodes of the war, the Tet Offensive at Hue and the siege of Khe Sahn. Although a few pieces based on his coverage did make it into magazines, the bulk of his writing went toward Dispatches, a work he did not complete until 1977. Several critics consider Dispatches the best writing done on Vietnam. Although such extravagant praise is unfair to other writing on the war, Dispatches is in many respects an extraordinary work.
In writing about the Vietnam War, authors faced a formidable challenge. The conventional fictive narrative was precluded by the fact that Vietnam was a war that had no apparent external climax, no conclusion to mark either victory or defeat. Conventional nonfiction was compromised by the belief of many journalists that objective reporting was not possible in Vietnam. Skeptical reporters—Herr was one of those—stopped believing the official story that the military provided, which, because it always sounded rational, positive, and statistically clear, seemed increasingly ludicrous.
Herr was then left with the burden of creating a new form in order to communicate the war. The result is Dispatches, which in its six chapters probes the reality and significance of the war with six unique strategies. Perhaps the most dazzling is the first, “Breathing In,” a kaleidoscope of imagery that carries the reader from Graham Greene’s Vietnam to 1975, the fall of the Saigon government. Herr’s own understanding of the war moves from his lack of comprehension of a third-tour soldier to the point that he himself takes up a weapon and crosses the line separating observer and participant.
“Hell Sucks” describes the ferocious combat of the...
(The entire section is 859 words.)