The unique thing about discovering Michael Herr’s Vietnam War tale, Dispatches (272 pp., 1977) in a used-book venue was the cover—it really catches the eye. Citing in bold lettering no less than John Le Carre’s rather lofty assertion (“The best book I have read on men and war in our time”) it became something I had to read for myself.
Though the cover through the years has undergone many changes, including several with photographs of the author, the cover on the edition I bought is most striking, Along with the quote is the ubiquitous camo-covered helmet with the ever-present graffiti, in this case, “Hell sucks.”
Herr, in Hemingway-like brutality creates a graphic narrative of his time spent as a journalist in Vietnam for Esquire magazine and Rolling Stone. Hence the numerous sixties popular song lyrics Herr connects nicely to the incidents he relates.
As to the book’s authenticity, when asked if he was a reporter, Herr replied, “No, I’m a writer.” And a gifted and talented one indeed.
But whether fiction or non, there is no denying his presence in describing places like Hue, Khe Sanh, or Vinh Long during the Johnson presidency years. There are no pulled punches here as the author addresses the scathing racism of the conflict in this quote: “Ain’t a slope bitch in this whole fucked-up country that loves it.”
He also speaks frankly on the rampant drug-usage: “Sometimes sleeping at Khe Sanh was like sleeping after a few pipes of opium, a floating and a drifting in which your mind still worked.”
With masterful craftsmanship, this embedded journalist (long before the phrase became cliché) uses a stream-of-consciousness style to relate images, incidents, and events he either witnessed or heard about. Often Herr provides little in the way of background information, merely easing into one story from the last.
First published in 1977, this literary gem is still relevant to anyone who lived through the Vietnam War period, veteran or not. As a WestPac sailor with a limited view of Vietnam—mainly H & I missions in South Tonkin or Seadragon operations north of the DMZ—I found this collection of war reporting fascinating.
But for those who were there, Dispatches will be compelling reading, fact or fiction, perhaps dredging up decades-old memories. For writing style alone, this is worthwhile reading.