Remembering Michael Herr, Author of the Vietnam War Memoir ‘Dispatches’
If you have positive notions of war, read this book to get that smacked out of you
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
I was sad to learn that Michael Herr, the author of the Vietnam War memoir Dispatches, died Thursday at age 76.
When I first opened a copy of Dispatches, it was immediately clear it was unlike any other book about war I’d ever read. For one, it’s partly fictionalized and is strictly not a work of history or a study of military operations. Herr was a war correspondent for Esquire for 18 months, underwent a psychological breakdown after returning home, recovered and then completed the book.
Dispatches is a deeply affecting and painful account of Herr’s personal experience during the Tet Offensive, and written in the New Journalism style shared by Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. To read it requires immersing yourself in the war’s extreme, absurd environment through Herr’s eyes.
The book is more about mood, senses and individual soldiers. And there are very few like it.
“You a reporter?” a Marine asked Herr before one of his early helicopter trips into the field. “I’d said, ‘No, a writer,’ dumbass and pompous, and he’d laughed and said, ‘Careful. You can’t use no eraser up where you wanna go.”
Herr’s account, published in 1977, is extremely bleak and went on to influence Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, which Herr co-wrote with Stanley Kubrick and Vietnam veteran Gustav Hasford. Spy novelist John le Carre called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.”
If you’ve never read Dispatches but have seen those films, parts of the book may come across as dated and cliche — particularly Herr’s slang and ’60s counter-culture references. But that’s an unfair reading on my part, owing to having absorbed its language in the media it influenced.
The cliche-seeming passages are only cliches after 39 years removed from the source.
The book also blended horror and anxiety of combat zones with the mundane press conferences of military journalism. The differing perspectives of soldiers and officers, the latter whom regularly deceive reporters as the war descends into madness, is jarring.
“These official briefings did the same thing to your perception of the war that flares did to your night vision,” Herr wrote.
During one conference, a Marine brigadier general and a colonel — a press officer — briefed reporters on the bloody siege of Khe Sanh, where thousands of North Vietnamese troops pinned down U.S. troops for five months.
In the room was Peter Braestrup of the Washington Post, who served with the Marines in the Korean War.
“What about the Marines at Khe Sanh?” someone asked.
“I’m glad we’ve come to that,” the general said. “I was at Khe Sanh for several hours this morning, and I want to tell you that those Marines there are clean!”
There was a weird silence. We all knew we’d heard him, the man had said that the Marines at Khe Sanh were clean (“Clean? He said ‘clean,’ didn’t he?”), but not one of us could imagine what he’d meant.
“Yes, they’re bathing and getting a good wash every other day. They’re shaving every day, every single day. Their mood is good, their spirits are fine, morale is excellent and there’s a winkle in their eye!”
Braestrup stood up.
“General, what about the defenses at Khe Sanh? Now, you built this wonderful, air-conditioned officers’ club, and that’s a complete shambles. You built a beer hall there, and that’s been blown away.” He had begun calmly, but now he was having trouble keeping the anger out of his voice. “You’ve got a medical detachment there that’s a disgrace, set up right on the airstrip, exposed to hundreds of rounds every day, and no overhead cover. You’ve had men at the base since July, you’ve expected an attack since November, they’ve been shelling you heavily since January. General, why haven’t those Marines dug in?”
The room was quiet Braestrup had a fierce smile on his face as he sat down. When the question had begun, the colonel had jerked suddenly to one side of his chair, as though he’d been shot. Now, he was trying to get his face in front of the general’s so that he could give you the look that would say, “See, General? See the kind of peckerheads I have to deal with every day?” Braestrup was looking directly at the general now, waiting for his answer — the question had not been rhetorical — and it was not long in coming.
“Peter,” the general said, “I think you’re hitting a small nail with an awfully big hammer.”