Michael Herr: Dispatches (1977) Literature and War Readalong December 2012

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Dispatches is Michael Herr’s account of his time in Vietnam as a front-line reporter. It’s an example of what is commonly called gonzo journalism as invented by Hunter S. Thompson. The beginning reminded me of William S. Burroughs’ books like Naked Lunch or Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Pure 60s writing, fragmented, high on dope and high-strung as well. Not my cup of tea anymore. I used to read this type of books as a teenager, nowadays I prefer more lyrical approaches with a stronger narrative.

What Herr tried to do in the beginning, is make the reader experience as close as possible, what it was like to be there. I thought it was difficult to follow. I lost interest more than once and couldn’t help comparing it to Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece. I’m afraid Dispatches doesn’t hold up. On the other hand it’s not fair to compare them because they are totally different. O’Brien’s novel is a blend of fiction and non-fiction with a lot of metafictional elements. Herr tries to tell it as it was. Whatever he describes, even though it is filtered through his experience, it’s still true while O’Brien embellished and made things up. Sure, we could argue that truth is relative anyway and that’s precisely what O’Brien did argue. Be it as it may, Herr didn’t consciously change anything to make it “more real”.

Dispatches consists of 6 parts and while I had problems with the first three, I really liked the last three called Illumination Rounds, Colleagues and Breathing Out. Illumination Rounds is a series of portraits of soldiers Herr met in Vietnam and shows the wide range of people. How some of them got affected so badly by the war that they didn’t want to go back home, got addicted to it, or got crazy. They are just small vignettes but I found each of them powerful. Colleagues was equally interesting. This time fellow reporters and photo journalists were at the center of the story. The most prominent ones being Sean Flynn, Erroll Flynn’s son, a photojournalist and Dana Stone, another reporter. The two men disappeared in 1970, on the Cambodian border were they were said to have been captured by communist guerillas and were never seen again. Quite a sad story, really. Both were friends of Michael Herr and while he isn’t too outspoken it is obvious that he felt deeply when he heard about their disappearance. I attached two tributes that I found on YouTube.

Breathing Out focusses on the return home and how everything just seemed so dull. Something that you see mentioned often in Vietnam accounts is that the soldiers enjoyed being there to some extent because it was so intense.

An important part of the book looks at how the journalists were treated. Many of the soldiers were glad to have them because they wanted people to know how it really was. There were some others who hated them for being there without having to but purely because they wanted to. This was precisely the reason why others admired them. It takes guts to go somewhere like that if you don’t have to. The reasons for the journalists in Herr’s account to be there were very rarely political. Some were adventurers and Vietnam was just a way to combine making money with traveling and experiencing something nobody else had experienced.

Reading this book made me wonder what this war would have been like if it had been fought in the 80s. It’s so much part of 60s culture and was so much influenced by it. What would it have been like without the pot smoking, the music, the attitude of the people?

One part that I found extremely interesting is when Herr writes that arriving in Vietnam took a lot of adjustment at first because they had all seen too many war movies and it took a while until it sank in that this were not just pictures flickering by. I always though that was a newer problem but I guess nowadays it is video games, not movies which blur the lines.

I really can’t say this isn’t a good book but I would have appreciated it more a few years ago and if I had read it some other time. In any case, it felt very authentic, very realistic, gritty but not too graphic. However if you are looking for background information on Vietnam, that’s not the book to turn to.

Other reviews

Reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches (Danielle – A Work in Progress)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

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Dispatches was the last book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The first in 2013 is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (2012), 240 pages - US - Iraq war.

Discussion starts on Monday 28 January, 2013.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2013, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

18 thoughts on “Michael Herr: Dispatches (1977) Literature and War Readalong December 2012

  1. Such a fair review, when it wasn’t a book that really hit the spot for you. I quite understand as I am no fan of gonzo journalism either. One book of Hunter S. Thompson’s was enough to steer me away from that sort of thing. Although it attempts to get right up close to reality, I can’t quite shake the feeling that much posturing is going on, and that the underpinning is competition for the role of alpha male, even in failure and disaster. Traits that are unlovely in their lack of self-awareness. But then, I’ve only read one Hunter S. Thompson and am probably being unfair.

    • The later parts of the book were different and I liked those but the first which were really quite fragmented and nervoues just didn’t work. It was hard going.
      I haven’t read Hunter S. Thompson, he never really apppealed to me. I?ve read Burroughs some time ago and thought it was interesting but then he isn’t that much of an alpha male. Nor is Herr btw but it was still a difficult book.

  2. I liked the book. I don’t know if the ‘war as fun’ appeals to me because I’m American and wish books like this could make the decision makers think more carefully before sending kids to war or because I’m American and hope each war is worth it. I hope it’s the former.

    What stuck in my mind was Tim Page: when a publisher wants Page to do a book of his work suggesting that it (the horrible reality of war) might take the glory out of war. Page guffaws – “Take the glory out of war?” He lists the glories of war: tanks, planes, guns, those beautiful fireworks all night long. Page summarizes in that short tirade why war will never cease – too many people who love it, so much money to be made and oh, the magnificent weapons to be designed.

    • That’s a terrific scene, that Page scene. I found it chilling and spot on.
      I didn’t like the way it was written but that’s to some extent my fault, I expected something more like Tim O’Brien. I need more of a narrative. And I found it quite dated. If anyone is interested in the 60s/70s writing – that’s a book one shouldn’t miss.

  3. Great coimmentary Caroline.

    Interesting question about the Vietnam War and the 1980s. The thing is, at least in America, I believe much of the 1980s culture was a reaction to 1960s culture, that in itself was shaped by the war. Of course a war like that would have shaped 1980s culture so the 1980s would not have been the 1980s that we knew. I hope that this is not too confusing :)

    • Thanks, Brian, no it’s not too congfusing, I was thinking along those lines.
      I think what strikes me the most is how much the soldiers have chnaged from WWII to Vietnam. All that swearing, profanity and also rejoicing in cruelty… I think that was hardly thinkable 20 years before. It’s quite shocking. Many of the sodliers seem so depraved.
      All in all it was aninteresting book but not my cup of tea.

  4. Doesn’t sound like something I’d “enjoy.” Odd story isn’t it about Sean Flynn. I read a piece some time ago about how he was always in his father’s shadow, and that must have been a tough act to follow in more ways than one.

    • The whole part on him was very interesting. I think Herr genuinely liked him. He jad a hard time because of his looks, it seesm.people were either awed or didn’t take him seriously.
      That father-son relationship must have been very strained.

  5. I’m so relieved to read your thoughts on this book. I am reading the Everyman’s Library edition of it–so it is considered a modern classic. And while I can totally see why it would be part of the EL series, I must admit that I have been struggling with it a little. I’m only half way through–I had thought it would be an easy end of the year book, but now I am thinking I will *just* finish it by year’s end. I think I will write something about it now and then again when I finish as there isn’t much time left in the year and I don’t want to leave it out. I am very glad I am reading it, but you are right–it’s not the book you read if you want to learn about the Vietnam War. I’ve never read Hunter S. Thompson, or every gotten a taste of Gonzo journalism–so this is it, eh? I’ve been thinking as I read this how much I liked Tim O’Brien’s book–and while I don’t expect this to be like his necessarily, I think I was expecting more straightforward journalism. It’s good to broaden my horizons, though!

    • I think were are pretty much on the same page here. It’s getting better towards the end, more straigthforward and I’m always interested in people’s stories. But it really has nothing to do with O’Brien or any other book on Vietnam we’ve read so far.

  6. sounds like an interesting book even though you have problem with the first 3 parts.

    hope next year war literature will be better for you compared to this year :)

  7. I finished the book a while back and then was waiting for you to post and somehow missed it! Argggh! Anyway, better late than never.

    The Readalong finished strong! No surprise I liked the book. It had been a long time (decades) since I read it and it is better if you have read a lot of Vietnam War books first. I’m guessing any of the other Readalong participants who are not that familiar with the war, likely did not enjoy it. It definitely should not be the first Vietnam War book that a person reads. It was my second favorite of the dozen. I put The Stalin Front at #1. Here are some observations:
    1. Use of variations of the f word = 155
    2. Great lines:
    - reading the faces of the Vietnamese was like “trying to read the wind.”
    – “Under the ground was [the Viet Cong’s], above the ground was ours.”
    - “We had the days and they had the nights”
    - “Mostly what you had was on the agitated side of half-sleep, you thought you were sleeping but you were really just waiting.”
    - “And sometimes you didn’t panic because you didn’t have enough energy.”
    - “Our machine was devastating, and versatile. It could do everything but stop.”
    - “Noone ever talked about when the war would be over, only when they would be out.”

    3. The book gives a false impression that there was continuous action in Vietnam. In reality, for the soldiers it was long stretches of boredom interrupted by bursts of adrenalin-fueled combat. A book by a war correspondent would be much more action oriented because they could chase the action. That’s fine with me, especially when you throw in the quality writing. But if you haven’t read a lot on the war, the book gives a false impression of American soldiers as on drugs and stressed out. Some were, but most weren’t. War correspondents were likely to catch soldiers having bad days.

    4. Brilliant section on Khe Sanh. Including the analysis of why we fought there. I also liked the section on war correspondents. War can be addictive.

    5. The grenade launcher incident (p. 151) seems to have been borrowed by “Apocalypse Now”. I also read that Dennis Hopper’s character in that film was modeled after Tim Page (Herr worked on the film).

    6. I was surprised to see the criticism of the Marines and the props to the 1st Air Cav. “If this had been an Army operation, we would have all been digging now, correspondents, too. But the Marines did not do that, their training taught them more about the fatal gesture than it did about survival.”

    7. I liked his stream of consciousness style and the fact that he could switch to a more conventional narrative when necessary.

    8. I much preferred it to The Things They Carried because it was much closer to reality. I abhor metafiction! The best Vietnam War novel is The Short Timers (the basis for “Full Metal Jacket”). Nonfiction: Platoon Leader Young adult fiction: Fallen Angels

    As I read your comments about whether the book would have a different feel if it was set in the 80s, I was reminded of “Generation Kill” (both book and movie). I would have to say that based on the two, young Americans going into combat have more similarities than differences.

    • I was really wondering what has happened. It didn´t even cross my mind that you didn´t see the post.
      I knew we wouldn´t agree on this but to be fair, I think I would have liked it more if I hadn´t had to rush through it and read it during Christmas… I wasn´t in the right fram of mind. Watching Platoon was OK though.
      I´m not keen on stream of consciousness in non-fiction.
      It´s true we get the opinion there was constant action but most movies show it that way too.
      The depiction of drungs are more problematic as there were surely two sides. Those who did and those who didn´t. And these are precisely points I didn´t like. There wasn´t so much refelction on the war as such. On being a reporter and the addictive element, yes, but not on the war.
      I was thinking of Gneration Kill when I made that 80s comment. I find the feel and the attitude very different. Maybe not on the surface but still.
      In any case. I never realized how different WWII soldiers were from those who went to Vietnam. The f word is just one example.

  8. Wonderful review, Caroline! I loved the way you had analysed the finer points of the book with a lot of finesse. Eventhough this may not have been your favourite war book, I really loved your review. I didn’t know that Errol Flynn’s son was a photojournalist in the Vietnam war. Thanks for this wonderful review and for hosting this wonderful event.

    • Thanks, Vishy. That Sean Flynn story really got to me. Not sure why. I think he had such a hard time to find his own way, live a life different from his father and then he gets killd so early.
      The book is interesting but you have to be prepared. Being familiar with some of the language is good as well.

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