Publisher: Picador Cover design: Illustration by Joanna Thomson, Picador Art Dep
‘Our machine was devastating and versatile, it could do anything but stop.‘
‘For every prayer there was a counter-prayer – and it was hard to see who had the edge.‘
‘There were plenty of people who believed that we were nothing more than glorified war profiteers. And perhaps we were. Those of us who didn’t get killed or wounded or otherwise fucked up.‘
‘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.‘
‘Even the most detailed maps didn’t reveal much anymore; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind.‘
You drown in this book. You are meant to. The language of the Vietnam War is afforded no translation: Charlie, Grunt, Grease, Cav, Kill Ratio, Get Some, Far Out, Psywar, Loach and Huey. It’s your job to understand, the author is not there to make it easier. Add to this, Herr’s use of endless descriptive sentences, like this example on helicopters:
‘A collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right-hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door gun fire out the other, fuel, heat, vitality, and death, death itself, hardly an intruder.’
Such use of language is immersive and relentless, just like war itself.
Dispatches (1977) was called ‘the best book I have read on men and war in our time’ by John Le Carré. Herr’s book is visceral, totally uncensored and often cited as the most accurate account of the soldier’s experience in Vietnam. And an account of experience it is, not a written history of the war. While the book documents some key events such as the siege of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive, it does not chart the course of the war. It is instead pure memory and emotion, as Herr says, ‘the madness, the bitterness, the horror and the doom of it’.
Broken into six chapters (Breathing in, Hell Sucks, Khe Sanh, Illumination Rounds, Colleagues and Breathing Out) Dispatches is often a string of anecdotes; Herr’s memories one after the other. There’s the depiction of Saigon, beautiful and dreadful: ‘Sitting in Saigon was like sitting in the petals of a poisonous flower’. The NVA sniper who earned the affection of the Khe Sanh marines after surviving a napalm attack: ‘After that, no one wanted anything to happen to him’. The self-medication common to the army: ‘Going out at night, the medics gave you pills’. The sign hanging on the wire surrounding a Special Forces outpost: ‘If you kill for money you’re a mercenary. If you kill for pleasure you’re a sadist. If you kill for both you’re a Green Beret’.
Grim humour like that fills Dispatches. In Vietnam, for many ordinary soldiers, it was all they had. Names scrawled on helmets are particularly illuminating: Far from Fearless, Avenger V, Hell Sucks, Time is on My Side, Born to Lose, Born to Raise Hell, Born to Kill, Born to Die. Furthermore, Herr quotes verbatim multiple conversations between the soldiers he encountered. Not only is the dialogue uncensored, but it is recorded phonetically. So ‘Shit’ is ‘Sheet’, ‘told’ is ‘tol’ and ‘let me’ is ‘lemme’. In this way, the lived experience of the troops is put to paper with no refinement. This doesn’t make the book easier to read, but I doubt Herr was aiming to achieve a relaxing reading experience, rather a vivid and true to life one.
So, based on Herr’s true to life depiction, what was the Vietnam War like? The answer: Madness. A futile conflict infused with the ballooning pop culture of the 60’s (there is a full page of song credits at the back of Dispatches for the all the famous tunes Herr references), and widespread substance abuse. It’s no accident that much of the book feels hallucinogenic. And so it’s not surprising that Herr was used as a screenwriter for the narration of that most hallucinogenic of films, Apocalypse Now (Herr also has a screenplay credit for Full Metal Jacket).
The futility of war (and of the Vietnam War in particular) is certainly a central theme. The resilience of the North Vietnamese in the face of the American war machine is remarked on multiple times: ‘They didn’t seem depleted, let alone exhausted’. While Despatches is very much a depiction of the American experience in Vietnam, Herr alludes to the wider (and far more massive) tragedy it inflicted on the Vietnamese (58,318 Americans died in Vietnam, estimations of total military and civilian Vietnamese casualties exceed 3 million). Yet, Herr implies that this avoidable human suffering was caused in an atmosphere of total futility: ‘A lot of people knew the country could never be won, only destroyed’. Vietnam seemed like a fruitless enterprise with little purpose to Herr: ‘There were the times when the whole war itself seemed tapped of its vitality: epic enervation, the machine running half-assed and depressed’. Herr makes you wonder if stepping into Vietnam in 1968 really was like entering a world without hope, without reason.
But despite the apparent pointlessness, the great Army propaganda machine kept on churning, and it is in describing this that Herr achieves his most effective indictment of the American military establishment. His anger at the unreasonable cheerfulness of the higher echelons of command is palpable: ‘[Optimism] seemed to be the only kind of talk that any of them were capable of. “Excellent”, “real fine”, “outstanding”, “first rate”’. The army’s misleading use of jargon in briefings is also lampooned: ‘friendly casualties’ (not very friendly), ‘meeting engagement’ (ambush), ‘discreet burst’ (often uncontrolled fire). To Herr, it’s clear the military lost all credibility in Vietnam.
‘The spokesman spoke in words that had no currency left as words, sentences with no hope of meaning in the sane world.’
‘“Oh two hundred isn’t anything. We lost more than that in an hour on Guadalcanal” (…) you heard that talk all the time, as though it could invalidate the deaths at Khe Sanh, render them somehow less dead than the dead at Guadalcanal, as though light losses didn’t lie as still as moderate losses or heavy losses.’
The disconnect between press briefings and the situation on the ground contributed to Herr’s decision to abandon Saigon altogether for much of his time in-country. Instead he careened around the countryside with colleagues like Sean Flynn (son of Errol) and Dana Stone (both of whom would be captured and killed by the communists). His decision to embed with front line troops was undoubtedly crucial in collecting the depth of experience he relays in Dispatches.
But the difference between propaganda and reality is just one of the contradictions of war Herr highlights. Like the best writing on war, Dispatches complicates rather than simplifies your perceptions. It leaves you with a clearer appreciation for the men who were there, but a more complicated picture of the nature of fighting. For example, while terrifying, war could, according to Herr, also be a thing of beauty:
‘How lovely .50-calibre tracer could be, coming at you as you flew at night in a helicopter, how slow and graceful, arching up easily, a dream, so remote from anything that could harm you. It could make you feel total serenity.’
The allure of war is a theme repeated in books like Anthony Swafford’s Jarhead (2003). Both Herr and Swafford recognise the fact that far from being reluctant participants, some soldiers lust for fighting and its all-encompassing purpose, and far from devaluing any anti-war message, this only makes the books more terrifying. Literary comparisons can also be made to Joe Haldeman’s 1974 fictional work The Forever War (which after all is based on the Vietnam experiences of its author). Dispatches shares the same grim humour for army logic/propaganda as The Forever War. Plus they treat death in the same matter of fact, comfortless, and sometimes darkly humorous way. This from Dispatches:
‘“Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.”
I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story.‘
Herr reported from Vietnam as a correspondent for Esquire magazine. A fact that raised eyebrows then and would be unthinkable in today’s world of cash-strapped journalism. His credentials are mocked in one of the books funnier moments by a marine:
‘And Esquire, wow, they, got a guy over here, what the fuck for, you tell’em what we’re wearing?’
But the truth that Herr manages to convey is that while the Vietnam War was in many ways laughable in its madness, it was very, very, unfunny. For Herr, the scars of his own experience were deep. 18 months after returning to the states he suffered a nervous breakdown, and it was only five years after he stopped reporting from Vietnam that he was able to write Dispatches. Herr says that ‘My life and death got mixed up with their lives and deaths’. This intermingling of the reporter and reported is also alluded to in British war photographer Don McCullin’s autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour (1990):
‘The ghosts in my filing cabinets seem to shock me – the ghosts of all those dead in all those wars (…)
With this book, perhaps they will be set free.’
Herr died in 2016 aged 76. I hope that writing Dispatches was an exorcism for himself, in the same way McCullin hoped Unreasonable Behaviour would be for him. The end result of Herr’s work is a staggering account of what it means to be a soldier, with all the terror, beauty and humour. Above all, Dispatches feels real, totally, unnervingly real.
‘Those of us who remember the past are condemned to repeat it too, that’s a little history joke.’