I was still very young when the Vietnam War ended and had no family that fought in it so most of my childhood impressions about the conflict came via cinema - Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon
and so on. Now, I say "impressions" because I don't think I ever really thought that fictional films could capture the essence of war but they were sure miles removed from the old John Wayne movies and other cinematic representations of war that were perennial favorites around our house such as The Dirty Dozen
and The Guns of Navarone
. Considering that Apocalypse Now
and Full Metal Jacket
are two of my favorite films of all-time, it's odd that it wasn't until recently that I read Dispatches
by Michael Herr who contributed to the screenplays of both of those films."There was a famous story, some reporters asked a door gunner, 'How can you shoot women and children?' and he answered, 'It's easy, you just don't lead 'em so much.'"
Herr was a correspondent for Esquire
magazine during his time in Vietnam from 1967-69. Unlike many of the reporters there, he didn't have daily filing deadlines and was essentially able to go where he wanted and file a story with his editors at his leisure. And so it's hardly surprising that Dispatches
isn't anything approaching a traditional history of the war with lines on maps and troop movements but is more like a literary decoupage with the stories of those on the ground decorating a fairly elastic timeline. You know the narration in Apocalypse Now
? Well, Herr wrote at least some of it and that's exactly how Dispatches
Herr sympathizes with the grunts and most of the tales are of them, although he occasionally describes encounters with officers and devotes space to his fellow reporters. He gets stoned with them, listens to their stories, and eventually learns how to deal with the shit storm in which he finds himself. The chapter on The Battle of Khe Sanh is priceless and includes accounts of hanging out with two soldiers named Mayhew and Day Tripper. Aside from talking about death, the grunts constantly went on about how much time was left in their tour of duty and Herr includes this passage about Day Tripper.Like every American in Vietnam, he had his obsession with Time. (No one ever talked about When-this-lousy-war-is-over. Only "How much time you got?") The degree of Day Tripper's obsession, compared with most of the others, could be seen in the calendar on his helmet. No metaphysician ever studied Time the way he did, its components and implications, its per-second per seconds, its shadings and movement. The Space-Time continuum, Time-as-Matter, Augustinian Time: all of that would have been a piece of cake to Day Tripper, whose brain cells were arranged like jewels in the finest chronometer. He had assumed that correspondents had to be there. When he learned that I had asked to come here he almost let the peaches drop to the ground.
To paraphrase Willard in Apocalypse Now
, if Dispatches
is the story of what war did to the grunts, then it's also the story of what it did to Herr. “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," he writes. Amidst the drugs and rock'n'roll, the bravado and the fear, Herr is never quite sure just why the hell he went to Vietnam or, at least, why he stayed and this serves as an apt metaphor for America's role in the conflict itself. Herr describes the Army's strategy as going out into the jungle to kill gooks. When you can't find them, then just napalm everything. This strategy even got its own motto – we prevent forests. Herr just went numb at one point, it seems, and who can blame him.
By the end Herr doesn't really know what to make of his experiences and concedes, "And no moves for me but to write down some few last words and make the dispersion, Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we’ve all been there."