Michael Herr, Dispatches (Knopf, 1977)
Herr brought the Vietnam War back home in all its uncensored, unadulterated reality in Dispatches. Proclaimed as the greatest book written not only on the Vietnam War, but also on any war, Dispatches only made it into print as a book ten years after Herr went to Vietnam as a correspondent for Esquire.
Herr's triumph lay in his honesty as both a reporter and a writer. He eschewed the government junkets and the daily press conferences, preferring to observe the war first-hand, much to the soldiers' ("grunts'") incredulity: " 'Oh man, you got to be kidding me. You guys asked to come here?' 'Sure.' 'How long do you have to stay?' he asked. 'As long as we want.' 'Wish I could stay long as I want.'" Herr's honesty as a writer lies in his determination to stay true to the language of the War, the language of the dugouts. Likewise, for Herr language can veil truth, subsume it, render it meaningless, as he shows by transcribing a U.S. general's explanations and euphemisms during a press conference for what amounts to total slaughter of his men.
The war is shown as a pointless, fickle and angry god for whom no amount of human sacrifice is ever enough, but it is also one that Herr finds strangely seductive in its powers for offering camaraderie and utter life-altering experience. In this sense, it truly is a drug, about which only the hallucinogenic, disjointed rock-n-roll prose that Herr employs would be suited. He might ape the soldiers in their speech, but is never condescending. Similarly, Herr describes the solidarity of the press corps, those "crazy men who cover the war." Instead of happy childhoods, he writes, "we had the war."
As Dispatches as a book came out ten years after his original reports were dispatched for Esquire, critics were able to appreciate the book as a work not only of its time, but also transcending its time. John Leonard called it "a certain kind of reporting come of age _ that is, achieving literature. It is the reporting of the 1960's at last addressing itself to great human issues, subjective, painfully honest, scaled of abstractions down to the viscera, the violence and sexuality understood and transcended." John Le Carr called it simply: "The best book I have ever read on men and war in our time."
As journalists, we can learn from Dispatches by learning Herr's main lesson in reporting: the trite but true "go the road less traveled." Do not accept statements at face value by anyone, not even (or especially not) the government. Go see for yourself. Then write what you see to those back home. Alfred Kazin reserved his highest praise for the political aspects of Dispatches: Herr's "big effort is not literary but political. To his generation, Vietnam did come down to so much self-enclosed, almost self-deafened despair. No one gets above that specific cruel environment."
"America" by John Leonard in The New York Times, December 4, 1977. "Dispatches by Michael Herr, contains all the subjective energy, the bruised ear, that characterized the 1960's at their best. It is style disappearing into substance, into history, as though the war, and loves and hates its own perception. In a dull time of maundering, it is an edge, cutting and scraping. I wish it were fiction."