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Michael Herr's Dispatches: A Review

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

I’m (probably) overly critical of the war memoirs I’ve reviewed here at On Violence. If I am, it is only because I want to read a classic. I’m not looking for a good read; I’m not looking for something I like; I’m looking for a book that understands the nature of war and treats that subject with all the gravitas and pathos it deserves.

In other words, I’m looking for greatness. I won’t stop writing or critiquing until I find the next The Things They Carried or Dispatches.

So it’s probably pretty obvious that--since this is a review of Dispatches--that I love it. The worst thing I can say about Michael Herr is that he has maddeningly entered Harper Lee I’m-still-living-but-goodness-gracious-sakes-alive-I’m-never-going-to-publish-again territory, writing only four books in his entire career. But Dispatches alone makes Herr one of the greatest writers/essayists/reporters in the last half century.

Dispatches consists of a series of dream-like images, a collage of details, memories and fact; quotes, jokes and anecdotes. This schizophrenic fabric turns Dispatches into something beautiful: a collection of details. “Everywhere you went people said, ‘I hope you get a story,’ and everywhere you went you did.” All the details and experiences add up into one meta-story that is the war in Vietnam. It doesn’t tell you what happened, exactly, but it does tell you how you should feel about it.

In many ways, it’s harder to write a review of a book you love. It’s more fun, and easier, to write critically, tossing off devastating bon mots like a camper blasting away others players from the tallest point on a map in Halo: Reach, and safely hiding behind the internet’s anonymity while real writers who’ve written real books wonder, “Who the hell is Eric C to criticize me?”

So instead of just praising Dispatches, I want to share why all memoirists, or aspiring memoirists, should read this book. Take notes on Herr’s approach, since Dispatches might as well be a primer on how to write a war memoir:

- There’s no introduction, no “here-is-how-I-got-here” scene. Dispatches opens in the suck and stays there.

- Herr doesn’t include an unwieldy character introduction scene. He only really introduces some characters in two chapters. He never mentions that his best friend, Sean Flynn, died in that war.

- Dispatches’ style is very stream-of-consciousness, all action and sense and memory and literary detail, the crazed fever dream of war in all its ugliness, particularly the first chapter, “Breathing In”.

- Dispatches has no larger story or plot. No beginning, middle or end. Just all war. There is no larger thematic arc, of a boy becoming a man, or a Lieutenant learning to lead men.

- War is ugly. Herr lives the O’Brien axiom that if you come away from a war story feeling uplifted, you’ve been lied to.

- Dispatches is filled with pop culture references and 60’s slang. Modern memoirs fail, on the whole, to do this.

- Herr didn’t stick with one group, platoon or AO. He jumped around the country, in and out on helicopters, returning occasionally to Saigon to write and party and do drugs. It’s why reporters have an advantage as writers.

- Herr writes about his own shortcomings. Like the time he thought he got hit but wasn’t, or how some of the soldiers look down on him.

- Herr combines the sharp specific details with broad strokes that symbolize the whole war. Take this passage:

In the months after I got back, the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in began to draw together until they formed a collective meta-chopper...Sometimes they were so plentiful and loose you could touch down at five or six places in one day, look around, hear the talk, catch the next one out. There were installations as big as cities with 30,000 citizens, once we dropped into feed supply one man. God knows what type of Lord Jim Pheonix numbers he was doing in there, all he said to me was, ‘You didn’t see a thing, right chief? You weren’t even here.”

- Dispatches is very funny, as I’ll explain in a future post.

I’ve read Dispatches twice in the last year. In some ways, I felt I learned more about war--even today’s wars--from it than the post-9/11 war memoirs I’ve read. Maybe I’m still just waiting to read a classic.

three comments

If it’s near as good as The Things They Carried, I’ll pick it up.

Different, but roughly tied. Curious for your thoughts.

Yeah I might have to read this one as well. Still can’t bring myself to read GWOT war stories.