Reviews: Dispatches by Michael Herr

Dispatches is a masterpiece. It’s quite possibly the best book I’ve ever read. Herr tackles the Vietnam War like a philosophical question in and of itself. Never before has war been covered with such flair for language, such incredible insight, such reflective analysis.  The book is a non-fiction account of Herr’s time spent as a war correspondent in Vietnam for Esquire Magazine. As such, it is told in first-person. The narrative tone will be familiar to anyone who has seen either Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now; Herr co-wrote the script for the former and contributed narration to the latter.

The book chronicles Herr’s time in Vietnam (the late sixties) and touches upon almost every subject imaginable. We learn about the minute details of a journalist’s life in Vietnam, but we also learn about the lives of those around him. He spends a lot of time in the relatively safe cities and writes about that time, but he also heads out into the shit to spend time with the infantry on the front line. His description of the terror accompanying every single helicopter ride is so detailed and well-written that you can almost feel Herr’s fear yourself.

Herr does not write in a stale, safe, looking-back-on-things manner; he makes you feel as if you’re living every terrifying, confusing, amazing moment with him. He describes things that would sound too unbelievable to even approach plausibility were they presented as fiction, things most people will never ever have to contemplate let alone experience. The content is wide-ranging, covering specific places like Khe Sanh in as much detail as specific states of mind. The language of Herr is what sets this book apart as a truly great work. He speaks plainly and concisely, packing more emotion into ten words than most people can into one hundred. As with most attempts at dealing with war through art, the conflict between nations merely serves as a backdrop to the conflict between individuals, and within individuals.

This is where Herr shines, illuminating flawlessly constructed practical philosophies that are able to come into being only when one is faced with painful, horrifying injury and death on a constant basis. He writes about how war feels, not just how it looks and sounds. Every soldier in that war was either numb to the meaninglessness of it all, jacked up on the adrenaline that accompanies the killing of other people, bitterly locked in an intractable fight for enlightenment, or dead. And each of those types, we learn, were fully justifiable. Dispatches is the best book dealing with war that I have ever read, and maybe even the best book I have ever read full stop.

– Ben Vernel

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