Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977)

‘… the madness, the bitterness, the horror and doom of it…’ (p.87)

Types of history

There’s a vast and ever-growing factual historiography of the Vietnam War, which for the past twenty years has been able to take advantage of the post-communist opening up of archives in Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi to present a fully-rounded history of the Indochina conflict, setting it in the long perspective stretching back to the Great War and forwards past the collapse of Russian communism in 1990.

These accounts are now able to analyse the course of events from the perspective of the Viet Cong, North Vietnamese and Chinese, and can bring the same detachment historians have been used to applying to the Great War or the Crimean War.

But then, and quite separately, there is the mythology of the American War in Vietnam – a whole cultural complex, a mood, a movement, like a fashion, whose most enduring features at this distance in time are the classic movies it produced – Apocalypse NowThe Deer Hunter and so on – and the powerful pop music of the late 1960s – from the Beach Boys to Jimi Hendrix – which provided a soundtrack to the conflict.

All of this has been mixed and mashed with contemporary TV news footage and documentary clips of jungle mayhem, urban bombings, the last helicopters leaving the U.S. embassy in Saigon, cut and edited into sequences readily available on the History Channel or YouTube. A ‘myth’ as instantly recognisable as montages of flappers and jazz recall the Roaring Twenties or bomb blasts illuminating the night-time sky over Baghdad recall the Iraq War.

New journalism

Michael Herr’s Dispatches is one of the classic accounts of the Vietnam war but from a very particular, unconventional, mythopoeic perspective. The late 1960s saw the birth of ‘the New Journalism’, epitomised by the wacky reportage of Tom Wolfe and later taken to the limit in the ‘Gonzo Journalism’ of Hunter S. Thompson.

In this new approach the ‘reporter’ identified powerfully with the counterculture of the day, especially its openness to drugs and pop music. Their ‘pieces’ abandoned traditional journalistic attempts at objectivity in order to present personal, subjective accounts and to freely deploy literary devices like stream-of-consciousness, different points of view, florid imagery and so on. And the ‘reporter’ more often than not became the hero, the dazed centre of the report, struggling to make sense of the crazy world around him.

Herr was in at the start of this movement and a 1965 piece by him about Vietnam is included in the 1973 book-length anthology, The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe, which gave the ‘movement’ its name.

Dispatches’ prose and attitude is very much of its time, it’s the kind of knackered paperback you found lying around your elder brother’s room along with Zen and the Art the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (1970) among the butts of old joints and Leonard Cohen LPs. It is the high-tide of the new journalism approach to reporting Vietnam, it is a landmark, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece.

Dispatches

So Dispatches isn’t a work of history but neither is it conventional journalism. It consists of six titled sections (themselves made up of shorter numbered section), some of which appeared in magazines like Esquire and Rolling Stone, which are copyrighted 1968, 1969, 1970, and which report on events the author witnessed from 1967 through 1968.

1. Breathing In (pp.11-61)

The first section opens in late 1967. The tone is hip, knowing, cool. Herr’s prose is always wearing shades and three days of stubble. His gift for phrase-making and capturing the mixed-up street slang-cum-war jargon of the Army in Vietnam to try to convey the mind-bending experiences offered in so many ways by the war, is frequently breath-taking.

In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in began to draw together until they’d formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other, fuel, heat, vitality and death, death itself, hardly an intruder. (p.16)

Long looping sentences clotted with nouns, he also turns and twists the language to give familiar phrases new meanings in new contexts. He has a fantastic gift for vivid phrase making.

It was the same with your ongoing attempts at getting used to the jungle or the blow-you-out climate or the saturated strangeness of the place which didn’t lessen with exposure so often as it fattened and darkened in accumulating alienation. (p.19)

1960s slang and Nam slang, street slang, American slang, drug slang, black slang, war slang all meet on top of a sustained attempt to define indefinable sensations, pin down evanescent ideas, track down fleeting emotions:

At least actual contact when it was happening would draw long raggedy strands of energy out of you, it was juicy, fast and refining, and travelling towards it was hollow, dry, cold and steady, it never let you alone. (p.20)

This first section is the most trippy and poetic, pushing you in the deep end of deranged military activities and manic thoughts, offering up a smorgasbord of anecdotes, insights and reflections punctuated by manic moments under gunfire, contributing to the overwrought, druggy vibe.

2. Hell Sucks (pp.62-73)

Just one of the blasphemous mottos all the Marines were allowed to paint on their helmets – Born to Kill, Far from Fearless, Mickey’s Monkey, Avenger V, Born to Raise Hell (p.65).

Once Herr has established his recklessly anecdotal, prose poetic, wigged-out style in the first section, this second one is a relatively short burst describing the intense days Herr spent in the city of Hue during the Battle which raged around the Viet Cong-held Citadel in January 1968 – many mangled bodies, death-eyed G.I.s (uniformly referred to as ‘grunts’) telling him their Zen stories, hiding behind the huge Citadel wall from NVA snipers and everywhere terrified and injured civilians.

(Compare and contrast Don McCullins’ account of his eleven days in the same place and time, in his gripping autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour.)

3. Khe Sanh (pp.74-133)

The longest section, this gives an impressionistic account of the time Herr spent inside the American camp at Khe Sanh up near the Demilitarised Zone, during part of the epic siege which took place between 21 January and 9 July 1968. There’s more factual information here than in any of the other sections, explaining where Khe Sanh was, the layout of the camp and surrounding hills, information about the U.S. military units and the suspected North Vietnamese Army units which were surrounding and bombarding it, reporting on the progress of the ‘battle’ i.e. the enormous tonnage of bombs the U.S. Air Force dropped on the Viet Cong, as well as sections giving the ‘official’ version of U.S. strategy and events, including an interview with a half-deaf and totally out-of-touch colonel back at HQ.

But much more than that, this section gives a sense of how it felt to be there, numb with terror or awed by the beauty of incoming rounds or outgoing tracer fire, laced with insights about the bitter rivalry between the Marine corps and the Air Cavalry, the anxiety every correspondent felt about the next chopper that can take you out of harm’s way.

It also has the most extended portrait of specific U.S. soldiers – an odd couple comprising skinny blonde Mayhew and huge black ‘Day Tripper’, describing their arguments and confusion and unspoken solidarity.

This section contains a great one-page account of a VC sniper secure in a bunker a few hundred yards from the camp, who survives so much shooting and bombing and even napalming of his position that the Marines end up cheering him and nicknaming him ‘Luke the Gook’.

It has the one-page story of mean Southern redneck Orrin who gets a letter from his girl back in Tennessee telling him she’s pregnant with another man’s baby and describing Orrin’s hard-core vow to survive the war and get home in order to kill her. And, so ubiquitous is superstition among combat troops, that from that moment on, Orrin’s vow made him ‘lucky’, so that other soldiers sought out his presence, as if his vendetta would preserve him.

There’s the story of the voodoo black grunt who uses an M-79 grenade-launcher to ‘take out’ a wounded VC who’s lying out in the perimeter barbed wire screaming, without even looking, from the sound alone, to everyone’s awe. A scene lifted entire and used in Apocalypse Now, presumably by Herr himself who worked on the script for that epic film. (He also co-wrote the screenplay of Stanley Kubrick’s Nam movie, Full Metal Jacket.)

Eventually, after the six month siege ended with the VC melting away from Khe Sanh, the U.S. Army secured its perimeters, cleared up and after a few months completely abandoned the entire camp, removing all assets then blowing up the bunkers. Herr doesn’t invent the air of crazed futility about the whole enterprise, it is there in the actual facts, in the historical record, in the universal sense of pointlessness and absurdity.

Postscript: China Beach (pp.134-136)

Short description of China Beach facing the Bay of Danang where lucky troops get to go for a few days rest and recuperation (R&R). Its main point is that a few weeks later Herr bumps into some soldiers from the division he was with at Khe Sanh, and asks after the skinny joker, Mayhew, who we’d got to know in the previous section – only to learn he’d been killed, a direct hit from a  VC rocket-propelled grenade.

4. Illumination Rounds

These are short snippets, satoris, epiphanies.

  • The time he was riding in a Chinook which was under VC fire and the trooper next to him was hit and bled to death.
  • The bad reputation of the overpaid civilian construction engineers drinking and whoring in Saigon.
  • After a massacre of VC the U.S. captain had twenty or so VC corpses loaded into helicopters and then dropped on the centre of nearby villages to make a not-so-subtle point.
  • A pen portrait of Davis, a grunt shacked up down a back alley in Saigon with a local hooker, getting stoned with the boys and his unhappiness at the trap he’s caught himself in.
  • Meetings with the officer who claimed to have invented the phrase ‘Dink’ for VC, shortened from Rinky-Dink, because he didn’t like the common nickname ‘Charlie’.
  • How he first heard Jimi Hendrix on a tape deck switched on by a black grunt while they were all pinned down by VC fire in a paddy field. Jimi Hendrix – Fire (May 1967)
  • The Army surgeon in the provincial hospital at Can Tho a few days into the January 1968 Tet Offensive, who had been operating on wounded men for twenty hours without a break and ‘could not have looked worse if he’d lain all night in a trough of blood’ (p.150).

And so on…

5. Colleagues (pp.152-199)

This, the most thought-provoking section, begins as an account of the community of photographers and correspondents in Vietnam, which he estimates topped 700. His closest buddies were the photographers Tim Page, Sean Flynn, Rick Merron and Dana Stone (the ‘lapsed logger from Vermont’). They each get pen portraits, descriptions of their looks and attitudes and abilities, but the star of the show is Flynn, son of Hollywood actor Errol Flynn, who worked hard to live down his parentage but earned his chops as a fearless photographer.

This could have got a bit pally about his heroic mates, but Herr takes it deeper, with a number of anecdotes examining the odd relationship between the correspondents and the grunts. For example, the soldiers can’t believe the journos are there by choice.

And Herr moves on to ponder just what it was that drove him and the others to volunteer, to be there at all, to chopper out to wherever the ‘action’ was. To test themselves? To see if they measure up as men? And for the rush, the unparalleled adrenaline rush which comes from being under fire, running, shit-scared – which at the same time is the most exciting thing in the world and the most gut-churningly, pant-wettingly terrifying thing in the world – but which they become addicted to. Thus they come to understand not only the sick-to-death despair of the grunts who just wanna go home, but also the inexplicable compulsion of the soldiers who extend their tours, sign on for more. And also the terrible alienation of those who finish their time, ‘rotate back to the World’ – but discover they just don’t fit in any more; nothing makes sense or is so intense or meaningful as what they’ve just been through; who miss their comrades; who have to come back.

And then this section goes deeper still to consider the strengths and failures of media reporting on the entire war and Herr emerges from the stoner prose to make some really strong, sober points.

  1. His generation, he says, were saturated with TV and films – they experienced the war even on the ground in terms of movie scenarios, expecting people to get up after the firefight, adopting poses they’d seen in the movies – all of which prevented them, for a while, from realising this was ‘real’.
  2. The official version of events given out by the Army at their daily press conferences (nicknamed by the press corps the ‘Five O’Clock Follies’) was ludicrously detached from events on the ground, which correspondents had often witnessed for themselves that same day (‘most of what the Mission wanted to say to the American public was a psychotic vaudeville’, p.173). But the correspondents still had to report it, the official view. And since they all reported the same Official Version then – compared to the scattered, disorganised, highly personal nature of each of their alternative views – the Official Version tended to dominate the media and create the strongest impression on the Great American Public, simply by nature of its repetition and its consistency.
  3. Also militating towards the Official Version was the fact that most photographers and journalists worked for daily newspapers or TV stations and so were always in a tearing hurry to file a ‘story’, some – any – pics and words to send back to their agency or paper or channel, and the Official Version was always the easiest, the readiest-to-hand. This was another factor in its predominance, even though almost all the correspondents in the country knew it was horse shit.
  4. And another element of its dominance was the sheer amount of information the officials gave out, using a bewildering and evergrowing set of metrics, data and statistics – ‘kill ratios’, ‘tonnage of bombs dropped’, ‘enemy casualties’, ‘territory seized’, ‘light losses’, ‘moderate losses’, ‘heavy losses’ – to lie, lie and lie again, to hide the bitter truth that they were losing and ‘the Mission’ was failing. These blizzards of stats were easily printed and broadcast, they filled space and sounded impressive – they reassured the public that everything was under control.

Only slowly did Herr realise what a privileged position he was in because he was not a correspondent – he was a writer sent with an open-ended brief from the monthly men’s magazine Esquire, which he interpreted as the freedom to skip around, catching choppers to wherever sounded ‘interesting’, wherever the ‘action’ was, which gave him the time to really get to know the grunts, to get under their skin, to see the war from their point of view.

All of this leads up to what I take to be the credo or manifesto or thinking which lies behind Herr’s deliberate adoption of the common soldier’s point of view, language, drugs and spaced-out attitude. Which is that –

The press got all the facts (more or less), it got too many of them. But it never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which is of course what it was all about. (p.173)

So on one level the entire book can be seen as an experiment in trying to create a prose style which can report meaningfully about death. Not facts or history, though some are required to give context. Instead a turbo-charged attempt to capture the incredibly intense emotions of bewildered, confused soldiers under fire in a chaotic, incomprehensible war.

In interviews Joseph Heller claimed that his World War Two classic, Catch-22 was actually more a satire about corporate America, about project management and management theory and management speak than about the  actual war. In Vietnam the ghastly wedding of management speak and grotesque carnage reached new heights – Herr contemptuously refers to the more senior officers who asked the press corps to

… get with the programme, jump on the team, get in for the Big Win. (p.184).

But Herr was blissfully free of the straitjacket of daily reporting which tied up most of his comrades, free to understand the crucial central fact, that:

Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it. (p.175)

And hence, quite simply, the rationale for his new journalism approach – for his stoner, tripped-out, grunt-level view of the madness. And that’s why his book is still a classic. 50 years after the event, 40 years after it was published, it still captures and describes in the gaudy poetry of American street slang the unbelievable intensity, horror and beauty of modern armed combat, as no straight journalism, military reports, or sober histories ever could.

This section winds down with very personal reminiscences of his gang of buddies as the legendary Tim Page returns to Nam, and Herr, Page and Flynn enjoy wacky, frat-house adventures, getting stoned, playing the Mothers of Invention real loud, winding up Army Press Officers – he makes it sound like a swell life, like one long mad party, driving down to China Beach to catch some rays, then travelling back to Hue, now completely pacified and cleaned up, incapable of believing all the pain and carnage he witnessed there.

From what I can make out, Herr was only in Nam for about nine months, from the end of 1967 through the Tet Offensive (Jan-Sep 1968), the Battle of Hue (Jan-Mar 1968), the siege of Khe Sanh (Jan-Jul 1968) and leaving in September 1968.

The end of the book is desperately sad, like coming down after a great party. Herr is back in the States when he hears that Tim Page has received his final, almost fatal, head injury, and flies back to see him. Page has definitely retired, has a girlfriend, slowly recovers the use of his legs and even his left arm. They get stoned with Flynn and other friends, laugh about the old times, cry about the old times. It’s all over. Time to go back to ‘the World’, where they will never quite fit in or feel at ease.

6. Breathing out (pp.200-207)

A few last pages struggling to make sense of 1968 and the way the war and the rock music fused in that year and then short-circuited the decade. Then came the awful 1970s and Herr watched on TV the choppers he had loved cadging lifts across war zones on, being pushed off U.S. aircraft carriers into the South China Sea after the final American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973.

And then, finally, in spring 1975 the North Vietnamese Army fought their way south to conquer and unite the country after thirty years of struggle. Herr poignantly reports seeing pictures of victorious Viet Cong soldiers sitting on the banks of the Danang River, exactly where the U.S. Press Centre had been and where Herr and his pals had sat smoking and joking and laughing. All gone now.


Analysis

The fantastically powerful and evocative trippy, stoner prose and the ‘attitude’ it describes can be analysed out into distinct strands:

Meaningless chaos – coming under fire in ‘random contacts’ – the GI who points his gun at Dana and, they all felt, could easily have pull the trigger. The whole war effort ‘out of control’ (p.45) all mirrored by the deliberate sense of getting-out-of-control created by the drugs of choice, pot and acid.

The risibility of the official version handed out at the daily 4.45 news conference, also known as ‘the Five O’Clock Follies’ – the man handing out press passes ‘thought it was all a fucking circus’ (p.177), and the actual troops on the ground often seemed lost souls in a demented fantasy.

Entire divisions would function in a bad dream state, acting out a weird set of moves without any connection to the source. (p.50)

To Herr and his stoned contemporaries the entire conduct of the war seemed like a very bad dream, irrational, insane.

Search and Destroy, more a gestalt than a tactic, brought up alive and steaming out of the Command psyche. (p.55)

That phraseology is not a rational analysis of a military strategy, but Herr has thought it through and the insanity didn’t call for a sane response. ‘(Who’s crazy? What’s insane?)’ (p.61), the only ‘answerable style’ for the madness is a mad style.

Drugs Dope is referred to openly throughout, the evening sessions with joints passed round, the household fuelled by booze and grass, the widespread smoking of joints among the troops. As to stronger drugs, Herr refers  once to the powerful hallucinogen psilocybin (the active ingredient of ‘magic mushrooms’) but surprisingly rarely to the other great 1960s drug, LSD or ‘acid’.

And yet the prose reeks of acid, of the way LSD strips your sense of their blinkers and protection and exposes your nervous system to massive sensory overload. Indeed that concept of too much information, of the brain, nervous system and mind being subjected to more than it can cope with, is mentioned throughout the text as a metaphor for the experience of combat when the adrenaline shock, and the rush of terrified awareness, is experienced as just ‘too much’ to process or handle.

Once your body was safe your problems weren’t exactly over. There was the terrible possibility that a search for information there could become so exhausting that the exhaustion itself became the information. Overload was such a real danger, not as obvious as shrapnel or blunt like a 2,000-foot drop, maybe it couldn’t kill or smash you, but it could bend your aerial for you and land you on your hip. (p.58)

Even when Herr quits the war and ‘rotates back to the World’, Page gives him a small ball of opium to float him through the flight home (p.200).

Pop culture is all around them, every unit has tape cassette players and either in bunkers or even out on patrol are liable to click Play and the room or trail or trench would echo to the sounds of Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix or the latest single by the Rolling Stones.

Prose poetry

The rangy, slang, street poetic prose owes a lot to the Beats, to Allen Ginsberg’s poetic rants and William Burroughs’ cut-up prose, but also to the eloquence of American slang, a can-do attitude to the English language which creates openings and expressions from a recalibration, a special angling, of even the most ordinary words. During the 1960s the drug-cum-Zen-cum-Beat poetry language of a small sub-section of 1950s Bohemian culture, along with Black street slang and the argot of the urban jazz world, all mixed and went feral, spreading across street culture and into the songs and films and eventually official channels of the media and even the Army itself.

The book is alive with slang terms from all these sources, mashed together:

  • ‘believer’ – a dead Viet Cong (p.41)
  • ‘dig’ meaning to ‘get’, to ‘understand and enjoy’ – ‘can you dig it?’
  • ‘dink’ meaning ‘Vietnamese’ (92)
  • ‘gook’ meaning ‘enemy Vietnamese fighter’
  • ‘greased’ meaning ‘killed’
  • ‘grunt’ meaning infantry soldier (15). According to the online etymological dictionary the term originates from the Vietnam war and is first recorded in print in 1969.
  • ‘hip to’ meaning ‘up to speed with’ (86) as in ‘hip to…the sound, the trip, the mission, the attitude’
  • ‘jag’ meaning ‘prolonged bout’ as in ‘a crying jag’
  • ‘jive’ – routine, schtick, can be negative or positive – ‘don’t jive me, man’
  • ‘luck out’ meaning ‘get lucky’ (69)
  • ‘Slope’ meaning ‘Vietnamese opponent’ (86)
  • ‘spade’ meaning ‘Afro-Caribbean’ (98)
  • ‘tightly wrapped’ meaning ‘uptight, tense’ (97)
  • ‘tough shit’ meaning ‘bad luck’ (86)
  • ‘totalled’ meaning ‘killed’
  • ‘wiggier’ from ‘wiggy’ meaning ‘weird, freaked out’ (p.52), ‘wigged-out crazies’ (p.189) ‘the wiggiest goof of them all’ (p.197)
  • ‘zip’ meaning ‘enemy Vietnamese’

Beyond individual words, Herr records slang phrases which capture the alternative realities opened up by drugs and war and the lethal combination of both:

  • ‘Well, I’ll be dipped in shit.’
  • someone looks like ‘ten thousand miles of bad road’
  • ‘get some’ can refer to sleep, or just ‘action’, hence a demented chopper machine gunner can fire randomly into the jungle yelling ‘get some, get some’ – in a cracking throwaway Herr refers to this phrase as ‘the American banzai’ (p.184)
  • ‘have a pair’ (p.53) or ‘grow a pair’, as in a pair of testicles, to prove you are a man
  • the ‘thousand yard stare’, a vivid description of the distant look in the eyes of soldiers fresh from action – ‘Hill 861 was the home of the thousand-yard stare…’ (p.101)
  • ‘it’s hotter than a bastard’ (p.164)

But it’s the way often fairly simple vocabulary is stacked together in spaced-out ways designed to capture the fleeting moment, the psych, the thereness of the impression, you had to have lived it, you had to know it, which transcends the context of Vietnam to become a series of experiments in time-encapsulating language, and helps give the book its enduring sense of life and weirdness.

Sitting by a road with some infantry when a deuce-and-a-half rattled past with four dead in the back. The tailgate was half lowered as a platform to hold their legs and the boots that seemed to weigh a hundred pounds apiece now. Everyone was completely quiet as the truck hit a bad bump and the legs jerked up high and landed hard on the gate. ‘How about that shit,’ someone said, and ‘Just like the motherfucker,’ and ‘There it is.’ Pure essence of Vietnam, not even stepped on once, you could spin it out into visions of laughing lucent skulls or call it just another body in a bag, say that it cut you in half for the harvest or came and took you under like a lover, nothing ever made the taste less strong. (p.203)

Tracks referenced in the text

‘Whenever one of us came back from an R&R we’d bring records, sounds were as precious as water.’ (p.187)

The text is littered with references to contemporary pop songs. One of the things which made the war seem so special was the way that pop music evolved incredibly quickly into more adult (pretentious) rock over precisely the same period (1965-70), and so seemed to be directly commenting on the escalation and spiralling insanity of the conflict. Thus Herr can comment on the Beatles track, Magical Mystery Tour – ‘That was a song about Khe Sanh; we knew it then, and it still seems so.’ (p.91).

I began making a list of tracks as I came across them mentioned in the text and listening to them off the internet. Taken together, they evoke a vivid revolutionary world, which is immensely evocative even though it is all at least 50 years old, having gone through nostalgia, into obsolescence, been revived, and now becoming history. I remember some of these songs from my boyhood – my kids have never heard of any of it.


Credit

Sections of Dispatches by Michael Herr were published as articles in American Review No. 7Esquire and Rolling Stone in 1968 through 1970. It was published in book form in 1977 by Alfred A. Knopf. All quotes and references are to the 1982 edition of the 1978 Pan Books paperback edition.

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