Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 14 Aug 2016

Dispatches by Michael Herr

In 1978, Picador, then a relatively new paperback imprint, published a book of anti-war reportage that perhaps more than any other single prose work put the Vietnam war at the heart of the Sixties narrative. That book was Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

I had first read an extract from the book in Tom Wolfe’s anthology, The New Journalism, published in 1975. (Extracts also appeared in Esquire magazine, which had commissioned Herr in the first place, and in the New American Review.) The central conception of the New Journalism was that it sought to combine investigative objectivity with the greater licence of subjectivity. In practice this meant that the journalist was often a protagonist in the story, not just describing events but participating in them. As a genre it was a bit of a ragbag and classics of the form have been relatively few. Dispatches must be regarded as one of them.

Vietnam was the first truly hyper-saturated media war. Herr estimates that when he was there somewhere between 600-700 correspondents were accredited to Military Assistance Command Vietnam. And this was not media “embedding” as became commonplace during the Iraq war. Correspondents in Vietnam enjoyed extraordinary freedom. At least 63 were killed in action – and this doesn’t account for the walking wounded, or those damaged in other ways. Herr himself was unable to complete Dispatches for the best part of a decade due to a nervous breakdown.

For all that Dispatches is an extraordinary book I think it is fair to say that some aspects of it have not worn well. For one thing, it has been a victim of its own success and some of the tropes most central to it are now such established truths that they have become clichés. Consequently, the book sometimes doesn’t seem to be telling us anything about the Vietnam war that we haven’t already heard or seen. And there is a reason for this. Even if you’ve never read Dispatches, you will have absorbed its sensibility, its atmosphere, because Herr also wrote the script for the Kubrick film, Full Metal Jacket, and more importantly and certainly more influentially, the narrative voice-over for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. For over forty years it really has been Herr’s view that has shaped how popular culture regards the Vietnam war.

But where Dispatches does triumph – and this I had forgotten – is in its language. Indeed, language is the real star of the book – and not just Herr’s hip, visceral prose. He is also fascinated by the cynicism and gallows humour of the teenage conscripts, and fantastically attuned to the euphemism and obfuscation that military command developed almost into an art form during the Vietnam war. He was a connoisseur of the extremes language could be made to serve. To take just one example, he remarks in passing – and you can sense his relish – that the motto of the special Agent Orange defoliation squadrons was ‘Only we can prevent forests.’

I think Herr genuinely did believe that conventional journalism couldn’t tell the story of Vietnam – or be trusted to even try – and that the true obscenity of the war could only be captured by writing which was itself counter-cultural. In the late-70s I probably all too willingly accepted that view, but now I’m less convinced and find that Dispatches too is marred by its own empty platitudes – not least the dreadful, self-serving ‘freak’ wisdom of the era.

But Herr also seems oddly aware of this. He knew that glamour and guilt had accompanied him home along with the horror. In one superb passage of self-doubt he likens himself and the other journalists to the aristocrats who gathered on the hills overlooking Borodino to quaff champagne and watch the armies clash during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

Herr regarded himself as a Sixties casualty rather than a ‘war casualty’. In a profoundly Maileresque passage, he explains that the Sixties – its war and its music – had run too much power off the same circuit for too long, and that when the crash came it was too deep to recover from. If this analysis now sounds like the New Journalism at its most dated and self-regarding – and it does – don’t be put off. Dispatches is utterly of its time but this is part of what makes it great: its language, its vision and its period authenticity will never fade. And nor will its relevance. As Robert Stone has said, it is a book that “remains tragically relevant wherever wars are fought and the young die over things that seem strangely resolvable in retrospect.”

Michael Herr died on the 23rd June 2016 aged 76.

Alun Severn

August 2016