How do you feel when a 19-year-old kid tells you from the bottom of his heart that he’s gotten too old for this kind of shit?
The viciousness of Vietnam sinks in first. It never leaves.
I suppose that’s one primary point of ‘Dispatches,’ Michael Herr’s first-person experience of one of America’s most vile wars. There shouldn’t be a release. Fear should suffocate the pages, as it often did the flesh in real time. When the depravity becomes almost too much to imagine – and this happens constantly throughout the book — I presume only then are we beginning to approach the actuality of this.
So I was not surprised to be gripped first by the brutality of Vietnam and never set free from that particular vice.
What surprised me was the wave of contradictions and conflicted feelings that bubbled to the surface of Herr’s pages. (I should note here that I’m not referring to the factual contradictions of the war and its news that streamed back to the states through media and Washington channels, of which there were, obviously, many. I’m referring to simply the emotional effect of reading this book.)
For instance, I never anticipated associating the word beauty with Vietnam, but that was prevalent in both Herr’s physical description of the country itself and the emotional bonds that become inescapable when a significant amount of time is spent vanquishing death (bonds between soldiers themselves, between Herr and soldiers, between Herr and other media members).
On the deadly Vietnam jungle in waning daylight, Herr writes:
You could fly up and into the hot tropic sunsets that would change the way you thought about light forever.
It’s striking to read that in relation to a parlor of death.
Part of where this sense of beauty originates from is Herr’s writing talent. He writes about the lonely fear of Vietnam in no uncertain terms, but it’s delivered with a delicacy and intimacy that feels a hint majestic without cheaply glorifying something that has no business being lifted like that.
His writing itself is beautiful, and so maybe I’m projecting that on Vietnam – the place – and some of the relationships depicted in this book. That’s probably true.
Whatever it is, I felt tired when I finished ‘Dispatches,’ and I think it’s because the entire 243 pages were spent wrestling with themes that could be dragged in a variety of directions. Here are five of those themes that struck me:
1. The loss of youth
Some of Herr’s most emotionally flattening writing comes in his descriptions of the faces of young soldiers. He’d often talk about the eyes, dark and blank. If you covered the rest of the face and looked only at the strip normally covered by sunglasses, Herr mentions, it would be difficult to discern between a teenager and a 50-year-old. They all were dirty and wrinkled, but more than that, the eyes were all empty. There seemed to be no sense of time.
There was also Herr’s realization that the eyes of fighters, those young and once-normal American boys, saw something that would forever set them apart from him. Herr writes:
These were the faces of boys whose whole lives seemed to have backed up on them, they’d be a few feet away but they’d be looking back at you over a distance you knew you’d never really cross.
Herr, in a much different sense, lost some of his youth, too. The first 20 pages or so of ‘Dispatches’ are reflections from his time there. They set the grave and desperate tone, and they are written with the tortured wisdom that comes from intimate experience.
Then the book vaults back to the beginning of Herr’s journey, and it’s an abrupt shift. It feels like two different people, the second one full of innocence and some sense of glory for war correspondence, a glory that will soon be exposed as nonexistent.
“I went to cover the war, and the war covered me,” Herr writes.
2. Acceptance of fate
The idea of “fate” can be interpreted quite differently – with the biggest factor probably being an individual’s religious standing – but what ‘Dispatches’ forces every reader to do is consider the sheer uncontrollable forces of your environment.
In his analysis of the war and what it was like to live it, Herr scrapes the last layer of morality away and breaks Vietnam down to its core elements: Things happened, people experienced them, there’s a price for that experience. Nothing about actually experiencing Vietnam (or anything) is that simple, but it is from Herr’s most detached point of view.
In this sense, there are no “war stories,” only war facts. Much of what Herr saw during his time in Vietnam is merely frozen inside of him, unable to be comprehended or translated. Things – sounds, images, smells, emotions, scars of all kinds – are just there, existing, powerful currents that he has given himself to. This isn’t a choice – it’s a freedom that it is taken when your first chopper lands.
Herr writes about his nightmares, about his anxiety, that he cannot stop or even contain. He knows only that something rebellious is now implanted inside him, and it will torture him as it pleases. Herr has to accept this.
He has to accept that some things in his life, in all lives, are just that: They just are.
3. Degrees of exploitation
There were some soldiers with whom Herr grew quite close during battle. They shared more than a mutual respect; they shared something like a real friendship.
But, of course, there were many more who didn’t feel this way. Some were simply apathetic towards the existence of reporters, others struggled to hold them in any regard higher than the VC.
Towards the end of the book, Herr writes about one of the “dark revelations of the war” is the feeling of a Marine staring back at him without even a remote sense of where Herr was there. That a reporter would enter a war zone voluntarily was behind even wild comprehension to this Marine. Herr had options in his life, and he chose to be in Vietnam? How could these correspondents place such minimal value on their lives?
This fostered a great sense of resentment. Sometimes some Marines hoped a reporter would die, simply for choosing to experience Vietnam when they didn’t have to. But greater than that was the harrowing feeling of exploitation, that these soldiers’ worst moments are being profitably funneled back to the United States under the guise of civic duty.
“My Marines are winning this war, and you people are losing it for us in your papers,” the media would hear.
Herr cannot combat this argument, nor does he try. He writes:
There’s no way around it, if you photographed a dead Marine with a poncho over his face and got something for it, you were some kind of parasite. But what were you if you pulled the poncho back first to make a better shot, and did that in front of his friends? Some other kind of parasite, I suppose.
Then what were you if you stood there watching it, making a note to remember it later in case you might want to use it? Those combinations were infinite, you worked them out, and they involved only a small part of what we were thought to be.
This presented an obvious dilemma. Coverage of the war was most certainly necessary, but at what point does basic compassion and decency halt the further advancement of media? Where’s the line dividing a professional’s work from a parasitic reward?
That could be the most difficult judgment call any media ever must make. That constantly gnawed at me throughout the book, and Herr tried desperately to wipe some of the grime off that line, but it’s impossible to clear it fully.
There were plenty of people who believed, finally, that we were nothing more than glorified war profiteers. And perhaps we were, those of us who didn’t get killed or wounded or otherwise fucked up.
4. Courage vs. cowardice
A soldier doesn’t need to die in battle or earn the Medal of Honor to be a hero; each one is some form of a hero, from the moment they land in battle. I don’t think many people would argue this.
In one of the more uncomfortable themes in the book, Herr tries to approach the concept of courage by wondering at what point does a hero become a coward. He wrote a lot about fear and what was learned about it simply by remaining alive. But there was no clear definition of courage. Herr writes:
How many times did somebody have to run in front of a machine gun before it became an act of cowardice? What about those acts that didn’t require courage to perform, but made you a coward if you didn’t?
A lot of what people called courage was only undifferentiated energy cut loose by the intensity of the moment, mind loss that sent the actor on an incredible run; if he survived it he had the chance later to decide whether he’d really been brave or just overcome with life, even ecstasy.
It feels wrong to be even remotely critical of a soldier’s decisions in battle – assuming they are made in the effort of completing his duties and not something despicable and irrelevant to the mission – out of respect for the sacrifice.
Herr doesn’t do that here, but he is able to very delicately dissect the operations of war, offering at least an attempt at clarifying what’s heroic and what’s senseless.
5. Blind pride
I’ll end with my most potent takeaway from ‘Dispatches’ and the thing I struggled with most.
There’s an ugly underbelly of war that most either don’t know or don’t want to know, which Herr touches on. The jokes about easily killing women. The sign that reads: “If you kill for money you’re a mercenary. If you kill for pleasure you’re a sadist. If you kill for both you’re a Green Beret.”
There are a thousand little things that make you cringe and feel a thousand pangs of disappointment and guilt. Are those jokes simply sick shields of humor that help the soldiers get through the mission? Probably. I don’t know – I would never presume to understand what being in those boots is like. I almost feel apologetic for even discussing this.
But I don’t think I’ll ever fully settle with this feeling from ‘Dispatches,’ a feeling perhaps best described this way: There is GREAT honor in the service of a country, but it’s uncertain if there’s great pride in the actual serving.
I imagine those who have fought, and do fight, feel good about the purpose they are serving. But do they feel good about what they had to do each day to fulfill that purpose? I have no idea. Maybe some do, some don’t.
Through the torture and brutality of Vietnam, ‘Dispatches’ reaffirms how unfathomably fortunate we are to have those who serve. Sometimes it’s best to just leave it at that.
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