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Dispatches: A Contorted, Drugged-Up Masterpiece

Michael Herr’s defining publication, Dispatches, is a contorted, drugged-up, difficult-to-read, and all-around confusing book. It is a masterpiece. Herr’s vivid storytelling ensures that no future generation will forget Vietnam’s horrors, neither those which the Americans perpetrated nor those which they suffered through. This great work is characterized by a writing style best described as raw. The story reads as if it was directly transcribed from Herr’s own psyche. A crude oil of pure truth, unhindered by the burdens of convention or fact. The unclear chronology and unexplained jargon may deter some readers, but those who stick with it are rewarded with a unique literary experience.

Dispatches is a quintessential work of New Journalism. The novel masterfully depicts the truth of the Vietnam War, albeit through the use of fabrication to bolster the facts. Of course, the blurred line between fiction and reality defined not only the genre of New Journalism, but the war itself. Some may consider Herr’s work to be dishonest. Yet, I find that the tactful inclusion of fabricated events and characters enhances the novel, rather than detracting from it. Despite being originally published as a memoir, Herr himself stated that “I never thought of Dispatches as journalism” (Ciotti). However, Herr’s application of fiction to memoir does not lessen the story’s importance or value. Instead, it provides more understandable portraits of difficult real-world issues. Certain invented characters, like Day Tripper, add both a degree of vibrance and a new vehicle for metaphor. Day Tripper’s obsession with time, “its components and implications, its per-second per seconds, its shadings and movement” illustrates an intriguing caricature of a military mindset (118). When death looms so closely over any corner, one cannot help but count the days until freedom comes.

Perhaps the aspect of Herr’s novel which most hinders its accessibility with readers is its language. From the very first chapter, the reader is slapped across the face with a barrage of unfamiliar terminology. Reading sentences like “I knew one 4th Division Lurp who took his pills by the fistful, downs from the left pocket of his tiger suit and ups from the right, one to cut the trail for him and the other to send him down it” makes the reader feel as doped up as the soldiers (5). I could hardly imagine reading this with English as a second language! Although passages like this litter the novel, it hardly disrupts the flow of the book. The mark of a well-written story is that the reader falls into the narrator’s train of thought.

In a similar vein, negative opinions may fall upon the erratic chronology; the stories are generally organized thematically, rather than temporally. This may prove confusing for an inexperienced reader, but it provides a more organic recollection of the wartime experience, rather than a rigid and uninteresting account.

Further capturing the essence of the Vietnam War, Herr’s interspersal of dark humor is incredibly fitting. Many of the soldiers in the war were young, in their early twenties and sometimes late teens. Humor and youth are a match made in Heaven, and in someplace as close to Hell as Vietnam, humor was just another escape. Jokes are almost as prevalent as jargon in Dispatches and help weave a fabric of reality and relatability among the characters. “Fuck the lieutenant … what’s he gonna do to me? Send me to Vietnam?” says Mayhew, a nineteen year old soldier (116). Yet, humor invades even the darkest moments of war, and Herr captures this perfectly. The necklaces of ears soldiers call “love beads,” the lines of heads, “arranged in a row, with a burning cigarette in each of the mouths,” all the ways that the soldiers make light of the situation to feel microscopically less abhorrent (199). Descriptions like these make it hard to pity the soldiers, but maybe that is the point. Herr paints a complex picture of war, and his use of humor adds significant depth to his painting.

Dispatches was one of the first of its kind. A war story without added drama or heroism, a war story written as the war was experienced. The novel contains many potential points of controversy, but it is these points which elevate Dispatches from a memoir to a masterpiece. Telling the truth as it felt, not necessarily as it happened, Michael Herr presents the war in a new light. Even the diction itself, intentionally jarring and confusing, builds the atmosphere and forces the reader to experience a small fraction of the Vietnam War’s confusion. A window into the lives of the American soldiers, Dispatches ensures that the atrocities remain unforgotten. Yet, amidst it all, glimpses of humanity and humor permeate the grim depictions of war. In this truly great work, Michael Herr tells a story for the soldiers.