Thursday, May 13, 2010

345. Dispatches – Michael Herr

History: First published in 1977, Dispatches was one of the first pieces of American literature that allowed Americans to understand the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War. At a time when many veterans would say little about their experiences during the war, Dispatches allowed for an experience and understanding of the war like no other source to date. The book is noted for a visceral, literary style which distinguishes it from more mundane and accurate historical accounts. Several of the fictional (composite character) soldiers mentioned in the book were used as the basis for characters in the movies Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.
Plot: He covers two major operations, the siege of Khe Sahn and the recapture of Hue, the old Vietnamese capital, plus several other field operations. He meets many Marines, several officers, and fellow correspondents while gathering the impressions and experiences contained in his dispatches. The author prefers field operations over work in Saigon and its relative safety, but in reality no place is safe in Vietnam. The enemy owns the night with mortar attacks and continues the terror tactics with secretly planted bombs that explode anywhere in the city.
Review: The author was a journalist in Vietnam between 1967 and 1969, with the troops in action, on "shore leave" in Saigon or Danang. The "grunts" – the Marines doing the dirty work – accord the journalists a warm welcome, imploring them to tell it like it is, sure that the real story isn't getting through. And Herr knows the stories can be found among the soldiers. We soon share his ironic distance to press conferences where drastic situations are described in optimistic, veiled terms, to insipid warnings "against losing pay vouchers and currency-exchange slips" on the Armed Forces Radio Network.
Macho facts of life like fear, bravery, foolhardiness, and the thrill of machinery are described in a plainspoken and thus affecting way. The language is crude, death never far away. We're not spared disgusting details, from the bleakness of makeshift barracks to jungle decay to stumbling over corpses. The writing is more of a prose poem than a journalistic description or explanation of events.
It's interesting to read this book now.. the same deluded American people are at it again. "They worked in the news media, for organizations that were ultimately reverential towards the institutions involved: the Office of the President, the Military, America at war and, most of all, the empty technology that characterized Vietnam."
Opening Line: “Going out at night the medics gave you pills.”
Closing Line: "Vietnam. Vietnam. Vietnam. We've all been there."
Quotes: "Something almost always went wrong somewhere, somehow. It was always something vague, unexplainable, tasting of bad fate, and the results were always brought down to their most basic element – the dead Marine. ... And you knew that, sooner or later, if you went with them often enough, it would happen to you too."
Rating: Good, but harsh.

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