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".

Page After Page - Tim Page by Usamah Khan

Getting into photography has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling endeavours I've undertaken in the last few years. When I first had the idea, this website was actually just supposed to be a platform share my photos. Tying in other interests of my life was an afterthought - albeit, a good decision that I'm happy with. Exploring photography has been a central part of my free time and conversation for the last while and by doing so, I've exposed myself to so much and learnt about a wide range of subjects outside my normal vision and comfort zone. Finding shots I like and subsequently discovering new and old photographers often leads me to research their lives to better understand their vision and creative raison d'être.

One day looking at some powerful shots from the Vietnam War era, I discovered Tim Page and his photography. I was pretty taken aback by the rawness and power of the images he captured during that time. I began exploring more, researching his life and very quickly found he had done a decent amount of writing as well. I started reading an article he wrote and..well he definitely has a way with words and some of the most outrageous stories to share. I was hooked on his every word. He mentioned his autobiography - Page After Page: Memoirs of a War-Torn Photographer and so after a few months of searching and trying to find a copy, I finally found one. Once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down. 

Tim Page (far right) in the field

Tim Page (far right) in the field

Page begins by describing his life from birth, his childhood and really begins his story when at the age of fifteen he decided to leave his home in England and travel overland to Australia. The stories of the places he goes and the people he encounters on the way are almost unbelievable. He describes everything in such detail, down to creases on the face of the people he met for an hour on a warm night in the Iranian desert years ago. From France, Italy, Turkey to when he eventually ran out of money and settled in Laos you get the story of the man and how he rose to be such a prominent and well respected war photographer and journalist. How did he do all this? Well from the way he puts it, he just tried and did everything that came his way.

The meat of the book focuses on his life in Vietnam, the people he met there and his stories from the field. All throughout you get a a real sense of what the vibe was in the 60s, what rock 'n roll really meant and what that lifestyle entailed.

Something I didn't expect, and what ended up being the most striking aspect of the book, was the first hand look into what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is actually like and how it affects people. During that period, the last time the press was truly "free" to report in conflict zones, the journalists and photographers, while not drafted themselves, were in fact quasi-soldiers with ranks and a basic training. If push came to shove, they'd have to pick up a rifle and fire back with the rest of the soldiers. This happened for Page. Coupling this with the positions he put himself in to get a good shot and story certainly seemed intense enough to leave a lasting impact. Also he almost died..twice. After both times he went back out to the field. This disregard/weird appreciation for life is something thats so unnerving..but enviable.

Reading this book at any other time in my life probably wouldn't have had the same effect. Getting older, and learning how putting yourself in situations wildly outside of your comfort zone and just doing is the best way to grow, I appreciated his story. How every job he took, every person he met and every place we went added up to who he became. It's easy to have an experience, but to learn from it and have it add to your life is something you have to be conscious about, something you have to let happen. I think thats why I think about his story a lot, and think of it fondly as one of the books things I read last year.

Page makes note of a lot of friends he made. Colleagues in the war, friends and mentors who all have contributed notable works in the this field. Some that I've explored in the months since I finished Page after Page. It's a great starting point for anyone wanting to know a bit more about the this period in time. Not the history and timeline of events, but what was happening to the people and culture while history was unfolding.

My favourite passage in the book is his ending

...with no ifs and buts.

We are what we think having become what we thought
Like the wheel that follows the cart puling the ox
Sorrow follows an evil thought
And joy follows a pure thought
Like a shadow faithfully tailing a man
We are what we think having become what we thought