Dispatches by Michael Herr

The unique thing about discovering Michael Herr’s Vietnam War tale, Dispatches (272 pp., 1977) in a used-book venue was the cover—it really catches the eye. Citing in bold lettering no less than John Le Carre’s rather lofty assertion (“The best book I have read on men and war in our time”) it became something I had to read for myself.

Though the cover through the years has undergone many changes, including several with photographs of the author, the cover on the edition I bought is most striking, Along with the quote is the ubiquitous camo-covered helmet with the ever-present graffiti, in this case, “Hell sucks.”

Herr, in Hemingway-like brutality creates a graphic narrative of his time spent as a journalist in Vietnam for Esquire magazine and Rolling Stone. Hence the numerous sixties popular song lyrics Herr connects nicely to the incidents he relates.

As to the book’s authenticity, when asked if he was a reporter, Herr replied, “No, I’m a writer.” And a gifted and talented one indeed.

But whether fiction or non, there is no denying his presence in describing places like Hue, Khe Sanh, or Vinh Long during the Johnson presidency years. There are no pulled punches here as the author addresses the scathing racism of the conflict in this quote: “Ain’t a slope bitch in this whole fucked-up country that loves it.”

Michael Herr

He also speaks frankly on the rampant drug-usage: “Sometimes sleeping at Khe Sanh was like sleeping after a few pipes of opium, a floating and a drifting in which your mind still worked.”

With masterful craftsmanship, this embedded journalist (long before the phrase became cliché) uses a stream-of-consciousness style to relate images, incidents, and events he either witnessed or heard about. Often Herr provides little in the way of background information, merely easing into one story from the last.

First published in 1977, this literary gem is still relevant to anyone who lived through the Vietnam War period, veteran or not. As a WestPac sailor with a limited view of Vietnam—mainly H & I missions in South Tonkin or Seadragon operations north of the DMZ—I found this collection of war reporting fascinating.

But for those who were there, Dispatches will be compelling reading, fact or fiction, perhaps dredging up decades-old memories. For writing style alone, this is worthwhile reading.

—Peter Steinmetz

War: The Eighty Greatest Esquire Stories of All Time

War: The Eighty Greatest Esquire Stories of All Time (Byliner, $3.99) is a digital book that, as the title says, contains a huge collection of essays about war that appeared in the pages of Esquire magazine.

Those essays include three seminal pieces of writing about the Vietnam War:

John Sack’s 33,000-word “M” (the longest article ever in the magazine), from the October 1966 issue, in which the author wrote about an Army company that he followed from basic training at Fort Dix to combat in Vietnam.

Michael Herr’s “Hell Sucks,” a new journalism piece of reporting about the situation in Vietnam after the 1968 Tet Offensive, which formed the foundation for Herr’s famed novelistic book of war reporting, Dispatches.

Marine Vietnam veteran William Broyles Jr.’s 1984 essay, “Why Men Love War,” in which he writes:

“Ask me, ask any man who has been to war about his experience, and chances are we’ll say we don’t want to talk about it—implying that we hated it so much, it was so terrible, that we would rather leave it buried. And it is no mystery why men hate war. War is ugly, horrible, evil, and it is reasonable for men to hate all that.

“But I believe that most men who have been to war would have to admit, if they are honest, that somewhere inside themselves they loved it too, loved it as much as anything that has happened to them before or since. And how do you explain that to your wife, your children, your parents, or your friends?”

—Marc Leepson