I've read that Michael Herr's Dispatches is one of the best, if not the best, book that has been written about the Vietnam War. I've certainly not read widely enough to know whether that's true or not (and a personal favorite of mine remains Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried), but Herr manages to convey to the reader what it was like to be in Vietnam with a very authentic voice. He gives a flavor to the time, place and people that will remain in my mind for quite a while. I thought Dispatches would be an easy read, straightforward journalism. Dispatches, a report, what you would find in a literary magazine like Esquire (right?), for whom Herr was connected when he went to cover the war.
It turned out to be a very disorienting experience for me and a challenging read, not least because the writing style is so vivid and raw and with little structure. When I first was thinking about the book, his writing felt impressionistic, but I've since come across a better descriptive term. The six sections that make up the book, and within each section there are many stories, create a sort of collage. Bits and pieces of different experiences make up a much larger picture. Since there is no or little narrative arc it's hard to describe what I read, though I am left with a great many images. This was also challenging as I have read very little about Vietnam and am unfamiliar with the military and social jargon of the era. It's a cliché to say this, but the more I read, the less I feel that I really know about history and the world in general.
Herr chose to go to Vietnam as a reporter/writer (he wasn't there as as soldier) and could have returned home at any time, a fact that mostly astonished the troops, most of whom would happily have left sooner than later given the chance. He traveled with the marines and endured the same battles and discomfort they did. Drug use wasn't unheard of, and Herr and other reporters engaged in the activity. Caroline touched upon this in her post, but I wonder if the war helped shaped the Sixties, or if the Sixties shaped the war. Herr's Dispatches very much reflects that unique period--both with the language he uses and the style of the writing, which makes it easy for me to see why it's considered a modern classic. It just needed a musical soundtrack to be complete, but even then there are many cultural references peppered throughout the text.
Like all good nonfiction it's hard to tell you exactly what I read, since there was so much. So many stories, so many experiences and images and battles. I can tell you bits and pieces. I can tell you how my own perception has been shaped by a later generation and a different cultural viewpoint. I was still a baby when Herr was following the marines and watching the Battle of Khe Sanh unfold, about which he writes extensively. I've always understood this was the Vietnam War, though in Vietnam it's called the American War. I remember studying the Tet Offensive in school, but did I ever learn that Tet is actually the Vietnamese Lunar New Year?
Maybe it's best to leave you with a few excerpts so you can read for yourself and get a feeling for the writing. I dog eared many pages, so here are a few random passages.
"One morning before dawn, Ed Fouhy, a former Saigon Bureau Chief for CBS, went out to 8th Aerial Port at Tan Son Nhut to catch the early military flight to Danang. They boarded as the sun came up, and Fouhy strapped in next to a kid in rumpled fatigues, one of those soldiers you see whose weariness has gone far beyond physical exhaustion, into that state where no amount of sleep will ever give him the kind of rest he needs. Every torpid movement they make tells you that they are tired, that they'll stay tired until their tours are up and the big bird flies them back to the World."
"Talk about impersonating an identity, about locking into a role, about irony: I went to cover the war and the war covered me; an old story, unless of course you've never heard it. I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn't know, it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. The problem was that you didn't always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes. Time and information, rock and roll, life itself, the information isn't frozen, you are."
"Almost as much as the grunts and the Vietnamese, Tet was pushing correspondents closer to the wall than they'd ever wanted to go. I realized later that, however childish I might remain, actual youth had been pressed out of me in just the three days that it took me to cross the sixty miles between Can Tho and Saigon."
"I know a guy who had been a combat medic in the Central Highlands, and two years later he was still sleeping with all the lights on. We were walking across 57th Street one afternoon and passed a blind man carrying a sign that read MY DAYS ARE DARKER THAN YOUR NIGHTS. 'Don't bet on it, man' the ex-medic said."
I'm happy to have read Dispatches, though it's a book I can say I think I appreciate more than I love. I wish I had known more going into the book, but with every book or magazine article I learn just a little bit more for the next time. With the next book I'll have a little more familiarity and the language or style may feel a little less foreign. And maybe someday I'll pick up Dispatches to read again and the experience will be completely different. Until then I'm glad I read outside my comfort zone, something I am always eager to do more of, and I'll be looking for more books on the Vietnam War (suggestions as always are welcome).
Next up (later this month) is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, which is already on my night stand.