Dispatches - Michael Herr / by Usamah Khan


After diving into Tim Page's rock 'n roll account of his time in Vietnam during the war, and telling everyone who would listen to read his book, my Dad suggested I pick up "Dispatches" from Michael Herr. I remember I'd heard the name in "Page after Page". Page and Herr were actually friends during the war, both journalists covering the Vietnam through their respective lenses. Herr who was more of a writer captured the feeling of war through his words while Page, the photographer, was able to share his take of the war through the lens of his Leica. While Page's account of Vietnam was thoroughly centred around him, Herr puts the focus in "Dispatches" entirely on the soldiers in what I believe was the first example of 'fly on the wall' war journalism.

Every chapter presents a harrowing description of the soldiers life in Vietnam. To read what they went through was difficult at times. Most of them were younger than I am now and saw things I hope I never have to in my life. A passage that got to me was one where Herr encounters a soldier who put that at 18 years old he was more an adult than Herr would ever be. They were just kids. Some of them straight out of high school, football stars, local heroes and some on the opposite end, kids with troubled backgrounds from poor neighbourhoods in big cities. It seemed like a time where, unless you were ultra rich, everyone was just being drafted and shipped there together.

There wasn't any real chronological order to the events. I got the feeling he was just re-writing his notes from the field as they came to him or as he found them. Moments just kind of happened and you had to understand the whole context to make sense of why. One story in particular stands out for this. Soldiers were apparently extremely superstitious, taking special precautions going out in to the field bringing trinkets or even pairing up with special people who they believed were going to bring them safety and wouldn't get hurt. When one soldier, a happy go lucky 20 something from small town midwest America heard news that his girlfriend back home was 7 months pregnant when he had been gone for 8 months, his happiness and demeanour was sapped from him, replaced with a quiet, cool anger was scary to read about. Even scarier was that to the other soldiers, in their eyes this made him "invincible". Because they believed that if they were going through hell and God was putting this man through even more, then God wasn't going to allow him be hurt, and he was going to home alive to deal with his girlfriend and her new lover.

The level of superstition was crazy. The way everyone had their own mantras, good luck charms and beliefs. Some people, like the kid above, were considered to be so invincible and lucky that soldiers would go out of their way to go on tour with them in the hopes that some of their luck would rub off on them. You can see an exaggerated depiction of this, Robert Duvall as lt. Colonel Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now!". Herr had a hand in the screenplay and many of the scenes and stories were taken from "Dispatches". After reading the book, it was easy to pick out scenes that were directly lifted from chapters in the book.

The Vietnam War was the first and last time that the press was allowed to report so freely on a war. Too freely sometimes. At some points they acted as "Quasi Soldiers" with a rank and a weapon. If the fighting got rough, well there was nothing to do but to just pull out your rifle or pistol and just start shooting. All this for the story. That's why they were so well respected in that war. As Herr tells it, he left a hot zone and a grunt latched on to him as he was leaving and said to him "tell it as it is man, godammit you tell it".