Michael Herr Dispatches Analysis Essay
Dispatches Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
Michael Herr, a writer in his late twenties, takes a correspondent position with Esquire Magazine to report on the Vietnam War. He covers two major operations, the siege of Khe Sahn and the recapture of Hue, the old Vietnamese capital, plus several other field operations. He meets many Marines, several officers, and fellow correspondents while gathering the impressions and experiences contained in his dispatches. The author prefers field operations over work in Saigon and its relative safety, but in reality no place is safe in Vietnam. The enemy owns the night with mortar attacks and continues the terror tactics with secretly planted bombs that explode anywhere in the city.
The Vietnam War reaches its pinnacle with the Tet Offensive, named after the lunar new year on which it starts, from January 30, 1968 to June, 1968. Shortly before Tet, the siege of Khe Sanh begins on January 21 and lasts until April, 1968. Herr arrives to Khe Sahn by helicopter, the primary mode of transportation during the war, and meets two Marines with whom he shares a perimeter bunker—Day Tripper and Mayhew—along with other Marines. The author describes how the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) surrounds the base and digs trenches up to the barbed wire lines in preparation for a large-scale assault. Everybody expects something big to happen while the NVA probes the wire regularly in the cover of night and the Marines shoot by the light of mortar-fired flares. Suddenly the NVA leaves the area quickly, apparently from the heavy air strikes taking a larger toll than thought.
Herr tells the Marines' stories, some bizarre and others touching, with a deep sense of respect and admiration for what the young men do and think in a foreign country full of danger. With significantly less admiration, the author relates the propaganda of the Vietnam War and sketches the portraits of those promoting the official lines. While other correspondents think of the Marines as unworthy for story material, Herr finds them all to have something of value. His dispatches concentrate on the men who leave the deeper impressions, the background of the war, and the current action, but he also gives a section of vignettes that round out his overall experience. Sections for the other correspondents finish the book, most notably Page, a British reporter who ends up seriously injured from shrapnel.
Death and mayhem, sardonic humor, and extreme fatigue characterize the Vietnam War, along with legal and illegal drug use, and the ever-present rock and roll. Herr captures the sights, sounds, and gut-wrenching terror of war—plus an unexpected amount of beauty within the ravaged country. The author tells the stories truthfully, as the Marines request and as Herr must. All the filth, stench, and death of war remain as testimonies to what the soldiers experience and the survivors carry back home.
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Michael Herr’s Dispatches is a collection of reportage written when the author was special assignment correspondent for Esquire. His assignment was the Vietnam War; not, as he interpreted it, the military strategy, or the politics of the war, but what it is like to be in the midst of a war—how brutal the experience is and how exciting. Because it is written from this vantage point, Herr’s book deserves a special place on the crowded bookshelf of volumes concerning America’s most disillusioning war. The novels, the historical works, the memoirs of generals are all necessary to the avid student. But there are few books which, like Herr’s, are dedicated to the feelings of the common conscripted soldiers who really fought the war, men who were unlikely to write about their feelings and experiences when they returned—if they returned.
The author is what sociologists call a “participant-observer.” He is a student of military life without being a soldier; he studies that life by temporarily becoming part of military units in and out of combat, without becoming a combatant himself. In this sense Herr’s book parallels William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society, a study of the social structure of an Italian slum. However, although Herr’s relations with American soldiers are very much like Whyte’s relations with his street corner society, the aims of the two authors are entirely different. First, Whyte’s aims are theoretical, while Herr’s are emotional; second, Whyte is studying street corner society only, while Herr is interested as much in his own reactions as he is in the stories of the soldiers he writes about.
Thus Herr’s book has no overall theoretical or narrative structure. Rather, it is a series of impressions—narrative and personal glimpses of the war. The chapter entitled “Illumination Rounds” is perhaps the purest example of Herr’s method. It consists of twenty “stories,” each presumably an illumination round, an anecdote designed to give special insight into the war the way a tracer bullet makes a target easier to see at night. In one story, the author is in a helicopter that takes fire and has to reland; in another, battle-fatigued soldiers have an unsatisfactory encounter with some Red Cross girls; in still another, a noncommisioned officer recalls a bizarre meeting between a soldier and a girl at Fort Bragg. All of these anecdotes are written with an immediacy and power that requires little comment:As the troops filed out of the helicopter, the [Red Cross] girls waved and smiled at them from behind their serving tables. “Hi, soldier! What’s your name?” “Where you from, soldier?” “I’ll bet some hot coffee would hit the spot about now.”
Or,And the men of the 173rd just kept walking without answering, staring straight ahead, their eyes rimmed with red from fatigue, their faces pinched and aged with all that had happened during the night. One of them dropped out of line and said something to a loud, fat girl who wore a Peanuts sweatshirt under her fatigue blouse and she started to cry.
Glad as one is to have so many accurate glimpses of a terrible war, one cannot help demurring that they are glimpses only. Each taken singly is a true snapshot of the war, for Herr has the ability to place us down in the middle of an incident; he has the talent of a true novelist. However, after not too many pages the reader may tire of the constant parade of superior anecdotage that leads nowhere. What do all these anecdotes mean, taken together? For if they have no total meaning, there is little point to a book full of them. From this point of view Herr’s work seems more like a notebook—a series of individual entries in search of total structure and the added meaning that such structure would give them.
As has been said, Herr differs from the prototypal “participant observer” in that he deals with emotions, not theories. He also differs in that he is as interested in his personal reactions to the war as he is in the reactions of those he observes; in many selections there is a clear difference between the personal and the descriptive. The first anecdote from “Illumination Rounds” demonstrates this difference. Herr is talking about his trip in a helicopter transporting replacements. He is new, excited. The helicopter begins to take fire; a soldier across from him and a door gunner die; the pilot is mortally wounded. The dying pilot settles the helicopter down on its original landing zone. Herr’s observations are so acute that the reader feels present at the incident. The first indications that the helicopter is taking fire are frighteningly depicted: “We...
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