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Literature / Dispatches

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Dispatches by Michael Herr is a memoir about his time as a reporter during the Vietnam War. Instead of being a conventional linear memoir, it is a collection of anecdotes about people that he met and incidents that he witnessed. It is split into thematic chapters:

  • Breathing In” — General impressions.
  • “Hell Sucks” — the battle for Hue.
  • “Khe Sanh” — the siege of the Marine base at Khe Sanh.
  • “Illumination Rounds” — more anecdotes.
  • “Colleagues” — the press corps in general and Herr’s friends in particular.
  • “Breathing Out” — closing remarks.

Tropes in this book:

  • Anachronic Order: The fourth section, “Illumination Rounds,” starts with an incident that happened on Herr’s first day in the field.
  • Celebrity Endorsement: On the original British paperbacks, The best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.John le Carré is much more prominent than Dispatches — Michael Herr. Later editions keep the Le Carré quote, but make the title more prominent.
  • Do Wrong, Right: During the siege of Khe Sanh, a Marine bumps into someone at night and says "You wanna watch where the fuck you're going." He gets the reply "That's 'You want to watch where the fuck you're going, sir. " The other man was a lieutenant.
  • Funetik Aksent: If someone isn’t speaking in standard English, Herr will usually record it.
    • Note the subtle difference between Day Tripper (black) and Mayhew (white):
      Day Tripper heard the deep sliding whistle of the other shells first. “That ain’ no outgoin’,” he said, and we ran for a short trench a few yards away.
      “That ain’t outgoing,” Mayhew said.
    • Herr meets a soldier from Texas who says Herr should write a story about him “‘Cause I’m so fuckin’ good, ’n’ that ain’t no shit neither. Got me one hunnert ’n’ fifty se’en gooks kilt. ’N’ fifty caribou.”
    • Karsten Prager was a German reporter who spoke English with a Brooklyn accent. Herr asked him how this happened, and Prager replied “Well, I got dis tuhriffic eah fuh langwidjis.”
  • Gentleman Adventurer: A downplayed example in that we are told nothing about Herr's personal circumstances, but the chapter "Colleagues" shows that Herr had a different Vietnam from the average reporter. They were employed by newspapers and TV channels, he was loosely attached to Esquire magazine. They had to file copy every day, he could hang out with his friends if he wanted to. They were working for companies that belonged to the US establishment, and were encouraged to write stories that followed the official line, he could write what he liked. For them, covering the war was a job; for him, it was an adventure.
  • Know When to Fold Them:
    • The photographer Tim Page was prepared to go to dangerous places to get pictures, and suffered a series of increasingly severe injuries. He decided that his luck had run out after getting a piece of shrapnel in his brain. (He went from “going to die” to “live, but paralysed on his left side” to a full recovery).
    • None of Herr’s friends wanted to stay too long, because “we all knew that if you stayed too long you became one of those poor bastards who had to have a war on all the time, and where was that?”
  • Minor Injury Overreaction: A marine accidentally kicked Herr in the face when they were both diving for cover after coming under fire, giving him a small cut on the forehead. Herr thought that he had been shot in the head (“I could taste brains sizzling on the end of my tongue”), and started squealing in terror. Meanwhile, men who had been seriously injured were quietly contemplating what had happened to their bodies. He never went back to that unit.
  • Patchwork Story: The copyright page states "Portions of this book were originally published in New American Review no. 7, Esquire and Rolling Stone." The reader can only guess about which portions were published where.
  • Semper Fi: Herr often wrote about the Marines. In his experience, Marines were the sort of men who would walk across a firebase to find him a stretcher to sleep on, and shield him with their own bodies. The Marine Corps was an organisation that couldn't stop screwing up.
  • War Is Glorious: It might not be much fun for the average grunt, but it can be great for reporters:
    • Herr says “A few extreme cases felt that the experience there had been a glorious one, while most of us felt that it had been merely wonderful. I think that Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.”
    • One of Herr’s friends was the photographer Tim Page. Page was approached by the publishers of a book called Through With War, which intended to “once and for all take the glamour out of war.” Page’s reaction was “It’s like trying to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of The Rolling Stones […] Ohh, what a laugh! Take the bloody glamour out of bloody war.” Note that this was after Page had been nearly killed by a landmine.