The death in 2016 of author and screenwriter Michael Herr focused attention on his greatest achievement – Dispatches – and its stellar place in the realm of creative writing. Arguably the Vietnam War’s most enduring literary legacy, it was described by John Le Carre as ‘the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.’ Dispatches is indeed an enduring anthem to a conflict that shaped and defined a generation: a cultural reflection of heady times, a literary spectacle that conveys the energy of a rock concert, the speed of an action movie, the deluded insights of a drug trip and the questioning and suspicion of the Establishment. But is Dispatches a vibrant example of war reportage gone feral, or a deft work of the imagination, a novel posing as journalism? In numerous conflicting statements, Michael Herr only muddied the issue.
In the four decades since its 1977 publication, the reputation of Dispatches has solidified (and one might argue, calcified) within the New Journalism pantheon. Feted for its radical departure from war reporting norms, and stylistic innovations, it’s held by many to be the authentic account of what ‘being there’ was like; only writing of such unconventional nature, the argument goes, could sum up such an ‘unconventional’ war. Herr based his 200-page account on his year-long experience in the hellhole of Vietnam, in 1967-68, when he filed for Esquire, Rolling Stone and other magazines. Free to roam the battlefield without daily deadlines, he wasn’t beholden to values historically instilled into, and expected of, daily news reporters, including the treasured concept of ‘objectivity’.
In an interview in 2000 with The Observer newspaper, Herr described his mission as ‘part of the [1960s] decade thing. I had done the decade, and it had to end in Vietnam’. Yet unlike many artefacts of that tumultuous era, Dispatches hasn’t dated. Re-reading Herr’s pyrotechnic text reveals a journey imbued with contemporary, universal and timeless relevance. Moving across its jagged landscape, the reader is taken, as in a game of chance, on a random route without the comfort of narrative coherence or even a clear overarching argument. The book becomes a reflection of the war itself, one which the American nation has stumbled into, become hopelessly lost in, and from which there’s no way out other than withdrawal and defeat.
From the outset, Herr establishes the hallucinatory quality that hovers over the story, describing a map of Vietnam posted on his wall depicting the country’s French colonial-era territories, all of which have dissolved into history:
It was late ’67 now, even the most detailed maps didn’t reveal much any more; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind.
The signal here is clear: we’re heading into vaporous, shifting, and unknowable space. The Vietnam we’re familiar with from television news and magazine spreads, he suggests, the one that the media in what the grunts call ‘the World’ has imbued with currency, isn’t the same Vietnam we’ll encounter in Dispatches, which is a world turned upside down, filled with fantasies, lies, insanities, a constant sub-stream of absurdity, a world of delusions and darkness. Herr quickly shifts the reader to the battlefield where he encounters an American soldier hyped up on pills ‘like dead snakes kept too long a in a jar.’ Fellow soldiers describe the grunt as crazy, and, if Herr cares to look into his eyes, ‘that’s the whole fucking story right there.’
I think he slept with his eyes open, and I was afraid of him anyway. All I ever managed was one quick look in, and that was like looking at the floor of an ocean.
In just a few pages, Herr manages to convey his key intentions: to defy the conventional view of the war; to establish its ‘unknowability’; to position himself as an innocent abroad, moving into the war’s darker corners with a blend of anxiety, curiosity and courage; and to attach his perspective, and his fate – unlike many correspondents in Vietnam – to the ground soldiers pursuing an elusive enemy and prosecuting an unwinnable war. Confessing that he always went to sleep stoned in Saigon, Herr also unsettles the professional expectations, and literary conventions, of ‘reliable’ war reporting.
This isn’t a battlefield of confident commanders and patriotic, polished troops lined up in rows with visions of victory; in Herr’s eyes, and in his narrative, there will be no shiny medals or songs of men marching off to war. They’re replaced with disillusioned, hollow-eyed, drug-addled recruits and draftees flown on Pan American shuttles to Saigon, and their songs will be The Rolling Stones’ ‘Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing in the Shadows’, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’, and The Animals’ ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’. In earlier wars, correspondents packed whiskey; ‘We packed grass and tape.’ Yet, as Herr later acknowledged, some elements never change:
Young men are expected to go, to fight, to kill, to die. And with young men, it’s always fascinating, I mean it’s one of great clichés of war literature – the young man full of piss and vinegar and ready to get into combat to prove his gallantry and his courage, make his family proud and his community proud. And they go and they see what it is, and it’s too late.
Herr has no illusions about the men he’s mixing with, and whom he admires. For all their brutal honesty, they were also victims of Vietnam, of what the war was doing to them. ‘They were killers. Of course they were; what would anyone expect them to be?’ The narrative is shadowed by an almost constant intertwining of twin anxieties: the soldiers’ quest for vaguely rational explanations of their mission, which never come, and Herr’s fascination with his equal failure to fully understand why he is there. (At one point he offers a trite explanation: ‘I think that Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.’)
In his attempt to make it ‘less real’, Herr ironically imbued the Vietnam conflict with a degree of authenticity that other media representatives could not, or would not, replicate. In one of the book’s most cited lines he declares, ‘Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it…’ yet he also acknowledges the difficulties faced by correspondents reporting the war for daily outlets (and ‘the incredible demands put on them from offices thousands of miles away’) and by journalists for news magazines like Time, whose reportage is worked up into ‘uni-prose’; against this, Herr acknowledges his comparative freedom to write and file at a more leisurely pace (a piece he’s written for Esquire appears ‘like some lost dispatch from the Crimea.’). Yet, as he observed, mainstream journalists knew that no matter how honestly they reported the war, ‘their best work would somehow be lost in the wash of news, all the facts, all the Vietnam stories.’ Herr sites himself in the media pack even as he leans away from it, adopting in Dispatches the role of a lone operator, the existential observer/journalist who approaches his subject with a sense of moral engagement.
As his jagged narrative draws to a close, Herr is back in ‘the World’, reflecting on his Vietnam experience and the value of not having stayed too long: ‘We came to fear something more complicated than death, an annihilation less final but more complete, and we got out’, though not without scars, including dreams of dead Marines in his living room. Herr – like many – suffered trauma-induced depression, as he revealed in his interview with The Observer newspaper:
I did go crazy. The problem with Vietnam is that if your body came back, your mind came back too. Within 18 months of coming back, I was on the edge of a major breakdown. It hit in 1971 and it was very serious. Real despair for three or four years; deep paralysis. I split up with my wife for a year. I didn’t see anybody because I didn’t want anybody to see me. It’s part of the attachment. You get attached to good things; you get attached to bad things. Then I decided to look the other way. Suddenly I had a child. I went back to my book.
Although Herr claimed it took ‘about six years’ to write the book, it reads as if penned in the heat of battle, with an often-frenetic sense of urgency carried to the page. Publishers asked him to write more about Vietnam, about war. ‘I say: “Haven’t you read my fucking book? What the fuck would I want to go and do that for?” […] I’m not interested in Vietnam. It has passed clean through me.’ In 1978, he worked on the script for Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam film Apocalypse Now, ‘But after that, that was it. No more Vietnam.’ When the American effort collapsed in 1975, he’d seen the coverage on TV news:
I watched the choppers I’d loved dropping into the South China Sea as their Vietnamese pilots jumped clear, and one last chopper revved it up, lifted off and flew out of my chest.
With this nod to the genre of magical realism then in vogue (Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude had appeared in English in 1970), Herr lays open the question of whether Dispatches is a work of non-fiction or something else: a reality-based novel, a fictionalised memoir, an amalgam of genres beyond any one? ‘Even if we read it as fiction’, asks Connie Schultz in The Columbia Journalism Review, ‘Dispatches is a work of enormous power, but would its sense of urgency and loss be diminished?’ She partly answers her own question: ‘Thirty years after reading the book for the first time, I still have the same gut response: at least I understand why I will never understand what happened to our boys in Vietnam.’
Herr remained evasive on the subject of whether Dispatches was a work fiction or not. Parts of it were, he admitted, what is labeled, in the context of television news, ‘produced reality’. In 1978, one year after its publication, Dispatches was recommended for the U.S. National Book Award in the non-fiction category; yet in a 1992 interview with Eric Schroeder, Herr referred to the book as a novel, adding, ‘I don’t think it’s any secret that there is talk in the book that’s invented.’
But it’s invented out of that voice that I heard so often and that made such penetration into my head… I don’t really want to go into that no-man’s-land about what really happened and what didn’t happen and where you draw the line. Everything in Dispatches happened for me, even if it didn’t necessarily happen to me.
A decade later, in a filmed interview, he was again asked if Dispatches was fiction or non-fiction, and was again elusive:
I have no idea, I don’t know the difference. I’ve never known the difference. I have to tell you that I have no idea what that difference really consists of, between fact and fiction. […] I’m confused, I’m really confused. Like, you read a memoir, you read an autobiography, I have no idea what’s real and what’s invented and what’s wish fulfilment and what’s confession.
Where does creativity end and invention begin? In contemplating what he’d created, Herr’s response in 1992 offers an insight: ‘I would say that the secret subject of Dispatches was not Vietnam, but that it was a book about writing a book. I think that all good books are about writing.’
His comments suggest an unwillingness to be linked to any particular literary frame, any more than he’d wished in Vietnam to be labelled a particular species of war observer. Yet his combat features filed in 1968-69 were received by his editors and published as journalism, in magazines that clearly delineated to their readers whether they were reading fiction or non-fiction, throwing into doubt the question of authenticity. In the same 1992 interview, Herr confessed ‘there are errors of fact in the book’, explaining:
When the Khe Sanh piece was published [as an essay before the book], I had a really beautiful letter from a colonel who had been stationed there; he corrected me on various points of fact. I lost the letter, and it didn’t turn up again until after the book was in print… I couldn’t bear to go in and make the revisions myself. I was tapped out. I was exhausted from the project. Including the year in the war, I had spent eight years working on it, and I just couldn’t do any more.
In subsequent editions of Dispatches, Herr did nothing to correct these apparent errors. Rather, he seemed to suggest that the fiction/non-fiction debate wasn’t his problem, but a conundrum that had grown out of historical precedent. The ethos of the New Journalism argues that ‘fact-based’ journalism denies the possibility of alternative versions of ‘the truth’. Like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe before him, Herr had thrown himself into the ring of raw experience, a literary pugilist ready for a fight, with no hope of, or desire for, objectivity, to write as much from the heart as the head, a heart that he wore defiantly on his sleeve.
Herr redefined the war reporting memoir: what mattered to him was less about the accuracy of a quote or description, and more about how it was received by the reader, and perceived by the reader as being authentic or not. To achieve that objective, the difference between fact and fiction matters less than the outcome. While the issue is left unresolved, or at least unanswered in conventional literary terms, Herr’s work in Dispatches, marked by its freewheeling style and self-referential perspective, opened the way for more interpretative and personalised forms of war reporting, and war reporting memoirs. Its value in that regard alone is enormous and enduring.
As a literary artefact and legacy, it remains unique. As one observer noted,
Somehow, a young journalist whose previous experience consisted mostly of travel pieces and film criticism managed to transform himself into a wild new kind of war correspondent capable of comprehending a disturbing new kind of war.