Michael Herr: Dispatches (1977) Literature and War Readalong December 2012
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.
Reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches (Danielle – A Work in Progress)
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.