Michael Herr’s Dispatches: A Must-Read Book About War
The best book I’ve ever read about modern warfare was, unfortunately, not written by a soldier. Its title is Dispatches—a very nondescript, unremarkable title for such a wild, heartbreaking book. Penned by a journalist covering the Vietnam War for Esquire, Dispatches is half-memoir, half-history lesson, half poetic stream-of-consciousness ramble. That adds up to three halves, I know—a mathematical impossibility—but that’s just how good the book is: impossibly good.
And not only is it the best book I’ve ever read about modern warfare, it’s the best modern book I’ve ever read, period. Got to admit I’m more of a Shakespeare slash ancient Greece and Rome slash nineteenth–century Russian man myself, modernism and postmodernism holding no special thrill for me. In fact, any writer writing after 1940, to me, seems overly needy and annoyingly disingenuous. But Dispatches is the notable exception.
Michael Herr, the author, is everything Hunter S. Thompson and the Beats aspired to be, out-gonzoing the former and out-beating the latter. He’s got a mercurial yet penetrating style: sometimes mystically abstract…
Between what contact did to you and how tired you got, between the farout things you saw or heard and what you personally lost out of all that got blown away, the war made a place for you that was all yours.
… and sometimes startlingly clear in its specificity:
The man lit a cigarette and then sort of slobbered it out, I couldn’t imagine what I was seeing. He tried again with a fresh cigarette… but after a few puffs it went out too, and he let it drop to the ground. “I couldn’t spit for a week up there,” he said, “and now I can’t fucking stop.”
What really sets Herr apart is he’s got heart. He doesn’t strike manly poses or create much of a persona for himself. Even though it’s told in first-person, the focus in Dispatches is very much on the soldiers he crosses paths with and the terrain they inhabit.
A couple of the more memorable soldiers depicted in the book is an odd couple at Khe Sanh named Day Tripper and Mayhew. Day Tripper is a mustachioed black Detroitian “at least six-three and quarter-back thick,” while Mayhew is white—and, Herr adds, “if I’d seen him first from the back I would have said that he was eleven years old.” Mayhew likes to sing TV jingles and Day Tripper has a calendar scrawled on the back of his helmet with X’s marked off for each day of his tour of duty he completes. They’re inseparable, selfless, and impossibly young. Only one of them survives.
Let me tell you what Dispatches is not. It’s not a straight-laced, comprehensive history lesson on the Vietnam War; it’s not an in-depth psychological case study; it’s not a bitter denunciation of what most people consider one big huge mistake; and it’s not told from the perspective of the Vietnamese.
And now let me tell you what it is. It’s a series of snapshots; it’s a collage; it’s a work of literature that catches the spirit of much of the shit that went down without analyzing or categorizing overmuch; it’s a record of random scraps of truth that other more sententious works might pass over. For instance:
The ground fire stopped, and we went on to land at Vinh Long, where the pilot yawned and said, “I think I’ll go to bed early tonight and see if I can wake up with any enthusiasm for this war.”
There was a standard question you could use to open a conversation with troops, and Fouhy tried it. “How long you been in-country?” he asked.
The kid half lifted his head; that question could not be serious…
“All fuckin’ day,” he said.
What I take away from Dispatches is two things. One: war brings out the best and worst in people—and countries. Although Herr has great affection and sympathy for the soldiers he meets, there’s no denying that our boys in Vietnam did some nasty things. The North Vietnamese, of course, did nasty things, too—but, to mix metaphors, as far as holding ourselves to a higher standard, we dropped the ball.
Two: modern warfare is simply too much for the human mind to take. The noise, the complexity, the sheer inhuman brute force: if there really is some wrathful God up there who sometimes sanctions wars, surely this is not the way they were meant to be waged.