1. DISPATCHES: A JOURNEY INTO THE VIETNAM NIGHTMARE2. A WITNESS IN HELL 2.1. Breathing in 2.2. Hell sucks 2.3. Khe Sanh 2.4. Illumination rounds 2.5. Colleagues 2.6. Breathing out3. DISPATCHES AND ITS LANGUAGE4. VIETNAM: THE WAR OF THE ROCK AND ROLL ERA5. DISPATCHES AND THE CINEMA6. CONCLUSION
1. DISPATCHES: A JOURNEY INTO THE VIETNAM NIGHTMARE John Le Carré -who wrote «The spy who came in from the cold»- said once that Dispatches «was the best book he had ever read on men and war in our time». Dispatches, which was written by American journalist Michael Herr (New York, 1940), describes the author’s experiences as a war correspondent for Esquire and Rolling Stone in Vietnam between 1967 and 1969. The book, which was first published in 1977, involves a journey into the Vietnam War in which the author avoids military or strategic terms. He just writes about his vividmemoirs and tries to express this painful conflict through the soldiers, photographers and correspondents’ points of view. When Dispatches was sold out it turned into one of the first pieces written about the Vietnam War. The book is included in the New Journalism school. Many of his anonymous stories have been contemplated in the screenplays of movies like Apocalypse Now, by Francis Ford Coppola, and Full Metal Jacket, by Stanley Kubrick.
2. A WITNESS IN HELL Michael Herr arrived in Vietnam in November 1967 just when Dak To battle –one of the bloodiest- was in all of its fierce. During his period at war he travelled all around the country, sharing his life with soldiers and being witness of all the insanity of the conflict. Furthermore, he became great friend of other colleagues like Tim Page, Larry Burrows, Sean Flynn, Dana Stone or John Cantwell. Many of them got killed. Finally, he returned home after ’69 summer, when he was only 28 years old. Dispatches condenses the sickly atmosphere of war in six chapters: Breathing in, Hell sucks, Khe Sanh, Illumination rounds, Colleagues and Breathing out. In the majority of the cases, the chapters are integrated by little stories or articles.
2.1. Breathing in In «Breathing in» Herr describes a handful of stories that supposed a first contact with war and its madness. The author narrates his arrival at the Vietnam War in the middle of Dak To withdrawal. He also speaks about the conflict background, the paper of the United States during the pre war period and the life in Saigon, which was considered the «pearl of orient» during the colonialist time and which war turned into a capital of vice, allowing the growth of a paradise for gangs, black market dealers and pimps. On the other hand, Herr writes about his own fears, his abuse of drugs and his hallucinating experiences motivated by stress and tiredness. In addition, «Breathing in» includes a description of soldiers’ superstitions.
2.2. Hell sucks This chapter takes its name from a graffiti written in the helmet of a corporal. «Hell sucks» takes place in the Tet Offensive, launched by North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong guerrilla during the 1968 Lunar New Year celebrations. Herr spent most of this period covering the combats in the imperial city of Hue, home of the Nguyen dynasty until 1945. The author describes the brutal curfews between marines and communist troops in the middle of Hue historical patrimony, which was almost destroyed by bombs. He refers to the heavy number of casualties in both sides and explains, without any concession, this episode that finally was supposed to have been won by the USA but that caused an insuperable hit on the moral back home.
2.3. Khe Sanh «Khe Sanh» is the longest chapter of the book. The 21 January 1968 the marine camp of Khe Sanh, placed in the North of South Vietnam, was attacked by communist forces, beginning a siege that carried on until 8 April. Herr spent several weeks at the camp, living with soldiers in unhealthy bunkers filled with rats and rubbish. It is said that during the battle about two hundred grunts lost their lives and thousands of Vietnamese were killed by bombing and shelling. What is more, the fringes of Khe Sanh camp became the most bombed place in the world after the Second World War. Herr criticises the decisions taken by the Government of the United States and the military commanders, who thought that in Khe Sanh was happening the same that had occurred in Dien Bien Phu at 1954, when the French were defeated during the Indochina War. This chapter shows the way of life under the siege through the experiences of Mayhew and «Day Tripper», two grunts who strike up a friendship with Herr.
2.4. Illumination rounds Herr analyses in this episode the relationships between Americans and Vietnamese that were established during the war period. He goes into the differences between westerners and Asians and writes about the USA role, which varied between the door gunner proud of killing fifty Vietnamese and the surgeon who operated during long hours the wounded by the bombs thrown by his own fellow countrymen.
2.5. Colleagues «Colleagues» is a description of journalism in Vietnam. Herr explains the differences between independent correspondents –like him- and the ones who were working for traditional media. This episode gives a detailed information about reporters’ life in Vietnam and speaks about figures like photographer Larry Burrows, who died in 1971 when his chopper was shot down over Laos, or the Australian correspondent John Cantwell, killed in 1968 at Saigon. Anyway, Herr spends a lot of time speaking about photographers Tim Page, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, probably his best friends at war. Tim Page, who arrived in Vietnam when he was only 20 years old, was wounded on several occasions. The last one caused heavy damages on his brain. Nowadays, he still carries on. Probably, one of the most moving stories in Dispatches is the one which speaks about Sean Flynn and Dana Stone. Sean Flynn, who was son of Hollywood actor Errol Flynn and Lili Damita, left his life as an actor to become a war photographer. On April 6 1970, he disappeared while he was covering the combats in Cambodia along with Dana Stone. Both of them are still disappeared nowadays.
2.6. Breathing out The last chapter is based on Herr’s experiences after his return back home. The author speaks about his constant nightmares related with what had happened and with all the spooky things he had seen during the war. It is a kind of essay in which he exorcizes the monsters of a bad trip called Vietnam.
3. DISPATCHES AND ITS LANGUAGE Probably, one of the most attractive things about Dispatches isits language. Michael Herr employs a direct language, lacking any kindof fuss. Every time, he reflects the violence of war on the hard side ofspoken words. At times, the narration acquires peaks of intensity thatare able to express the feeling of nervousness and the tautness of thesituations described. He also tries to catch the different accents of thecharacters, depending on their origins. It gives the book a mouthful ofrealism that connects withthe eagerness of showing what really happened and who were the onesthat were there trying to deal with that situation.
4. VIETNAM: THE WAR OF THE ROCK AND ROLL ERA «Out on the street I couldn’t tell the Vietnam veterans from the rockand roll veterans. The sixties had made so many casualties, its war and itsmusic had run power off the same circuit for so long they didn’t even haveto fuse». (Michael Herr, Dispatches) Michael Herr usually refers to rock and roll in Dispatches. The booknot only speaks about war, it gives an outstanding view of the subculture ofthe second half of the sixties.Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention,Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan swarmaround stories of war. Their lyrics work as a connection between the«world» (the one at home) and Vietnam. It is also a way of escaping whichsometimes is related by Herr with the consumption of substances during hisperiods in Saigon or China Beach, far from the combats.
5. DISPATCHES AND THE CINEMA After its publication, Dispatches served as asource of inspiration during the creation of thescreenplays for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.Many of the characters presented on both films areinspired on stories described by Herr’s book. It is knownthat the author contributed with Coppola to the redactionof several passages for Apocalypse Now. However, hebrought all of his talent to his friend, British directorStanley Kubrick, during the writing of Full Metal Jacketscript, which takes place inthe battle of Hue.
6. CONCLUSION Dispatches keeps your attention from the beginning until theend. In my opinion, its peculiar style of narration and its naturalismallows you to construct a close idea of how this period was.Furthermore, it gives you the opportunity to know the way of life ofphotographers and correspondents during the war, with anyromanticism or disturb vision as it usually happens. The book isthought-provoking and sometimes heavy going because of thevocabulary, full of jargon or slang expressions. To sum up, despitethe fact that, at times, its reading turns a bit difficult, I believe that itis a masterpiece of American contemporary literature. Here is a playlist of the songs mentioned by Michael Herr in Dispatches.(http://grooveshark.com/#!/playlist/Dispatches+Songs+From+A+War/65586624)