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Michael Herr experienced Vietnam firsthand--not as a soldier but as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine. DISPATCHES is his personal journal chronicling his journey through that nightmare.

"I was overwhelmed...it summons up the very essence of that war--I believe it may be the best personal journal about war, any war, that any writer has ever accomplished." (Chicago Tribune)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679735250
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/28/1991
Series: Vintage International Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 163,963
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Michael Herr was a novelist and war correspondent. Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1940, he began reporting from Vietnam for Esquire in the 1960s, during the height of the war. He later chronicled those experiences in his memoir, Dispatches. He is the author of three other books, The Big Room, Walter Winchell, and Kubrick, and coauthor of the screenplays for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. He died in 2016.

Robert Stone, a National Book Award winner, lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

In 1971, during the rainy season, I was sitting in a room in an old-fashioned French hotel in Saigon, Republic of Vietnam. It was evening and darkness was settling with the suddenness of dimmed stage lighting over the noise and reek of the city. Beyond the groans of my ancient air-conditioner, there sounded the thunder that might always be, but rarely was, something else. The thunder persisted as the scattery silence of curfew came down.
That afternoon Judy Coburn, the Nation’s correspondent in Saigon, had given me a copy of the New American Review that contained a section of reportage by Michael Herr, who had come to Vietnam on assignment for Esquire. New American Review was a literary magazine in paperback-book form that favored the latest work of younger writers, and the passages of Herr’s work were entitled ‘‘Illumination Rounds.’’ The title itself seized the mind’s eye in a moment, moved a reader into a dark space inside himself where remembered parachute flares spread their whiter-than-white slow descending light and the red or green tracer rounds could suggest a celebration. The six syllables of Herr’s title evoked a nocturne at once explosive and uncannily calm, hypnotic in its prodigal light and color.
In the finished book, published in 1977 under the title Dispatches, Herr writes about some of the effects in question.
And at night it was beautiful. Even the incoming was beautiful at night, beautiful and deeply dreadful.
I remembered the way a Phantom pilot had talked about how beautiful the surface-to-air missiles looked as they drifted up toward his plane to kill him, and remembered myself how lovely .50-caliber tracers could be, coming at you as you flew at night in a helicopter, how slow and graceful, arching up easily, a dream, so remote from anything that could harm you. It could make you feel a total serenity, an elevation that put you above death, but that never lasted very long. One hit anywhere in the chopper would bring you back, bitten lips, white knuckles and all, and then you knew where you were.
Herr’s narrative in Dispatches is an unrelenting tale like the Ancient Mariner’s. He speaks with the Mariner’s stricken urgency and, like that figure, once he engages our attention he holds us fast so that we cannot choose but to hear. It is as though the writer moves like a magician over the unlucky country of Vietnam and in one blinding shell-burst after another reveals some new field of sorrow, disfigurement, or death. The scenes illuminated are often so gripping, and so precise in their rendering of humanity ensnared in the large and small hooks of war that they remain unforgettable.
‘‘There it is,’’ they used to say in Vietnam, a despairing catchphrase to signify the presence of some ineluctable force at the core of the situation. The force would appear suddenly out of whirl as if to explain everything, shimmer for an instant and be gone, a malign antic spirit. It never stayed in view long enough to disclose useful intelligence but people came to recognize it. ‘‘There it is,’’ they would say, just to let their friends know they had seen it and to be sure their friends had seen it too.
The setting of Dispatches takes in the entire theater of operations of what the Vietnamese call the American War. Its compass is set according to Herr’s self-directed wanderings over the length and breadth of the country. If ever a correspondent managed to be in the right places at the right times – the wrong places and the wrong times from the point of view of survival – it was Michael Herr in Vietnam. His reports come from just about all those famous killing fields whose Portuguese-Chinese diphthongs and unaspirated phonemes suffered on the palates of the American soldier-politicians of the time – the explainers, the spokespersons. From the streets of Saigon to the Delta, Tay Ninh and the Ho Bo Woods, Hue, A Shau, and the Rockpile to the DMZ.
Also the killer hills, left unnamed by our side, numbered by their altitude in meters: 881 North, 881 South. And Khe Sanh, where the unfortunate president Lyndon Johnson, a stranger to war, feared national defeat as his personal catastrophe, and where American defenders faced unprecedented numbers of the enemy supported by Russian-made tanks. Where Marines held out for two months unrelieved on the ground and where, five kilometers away, the North Vietnamese T-36 tanks broke through Langvei’s wire and actually took the base, officers’ club and all, and nearly effected a complete massacre of the U.S. Special Forces there along with their Montagnard troops.
About the time that Michael Herr began his journey through Vietnam, the mode of narrative that came to be called ‘‘New Journalism’’ had begun to appear in the American press. The unique claim of the New Journalism of that period was to present a pursuit of reality – we might very uneasily call it ‘‘truth’’ – in two authoritative dimensions. On the one hand it was journalism imbued with the authority of the press. It was the news, a recounting of facts theoretically subject to stern review by responsible authorities whose institutional reputations spoke for the accuracy of the matter contained. In an age perhaps more trusting of its institutions this seemed reassuring.
Yet the New Journalism made claims beyond the correct rendering of events. Along with its documentary accuracy it aspired to deliver the subjective observations, the tropes, witticisms, and insights, quite often unsympathetic, that even the most partisan standard feature story might leave to the reader’s inference. The result could be quite scandalous and attention getting, with some readers enraged by the insolence that the New Journalist might visit on his story’s embarrassed subjects, and others rejoicing not only in the public exposure of the enemies’ fatuities but in having the journalist’s observations echo their own judgments. So the New Journalism, liberty and license, dependent on the honor and perception of the reporter, was an unwieldy vehicle.
Dispatches, belonging to its time, was of the New Journalism. Herr’s journey to the heart of things began in the offices of Esquire, where he had been in discussions with the magazine’s Harold Hayes about writing some pieces. They agreed to a monthly column from the war’s various engagements and a chart outlining the Vietnamese War’s military power structure. Herr set out for Vietnam, arriving in Saigon in November 1967. Those familiar with the history of the war will recognize the imminent fatefulness of that date, for it was only two months later that the bloody Tet Offensive, the all-out push by the Vietnamese Communists to break the American presence in the country, erupted all over South Vietnam. That offensive nearly succeeded in capturing the American embassy in the capital and brought the noise of satchel charges and AK-47 fire to the bureau headquarters of American media. Some felt that Walter Cronkite’s comments on the effects of Tet, broadcast over his network news show, shattered the confidence of the American public, and obviated the informative usefulness of charts and regular columns, too.
Tet is what the Vietnamese call the Lunar New Year, a festive season of flowers and gift-giving during which thousands of Vietnamese are on the roads for visits home. It is also celebrated by the discharge of fireworks, fireworks that fill the sky, and echo off the mountains and through every village and hamlet.
On the first day of Tet 1968, Michael Herr was at a Special Forces base in the Mekong Delta outside of Can Tho. Herr and the Green Berets were engaged in the un-John Waynelike activity of smoking the good Vietnamese marijuana and listening to the fireworks when it occurred to someone in the company that what they were listening to was not fireworks at all. It was the beginning of the attack that would bring a degree of fame to the hamlet of Ben Tre, the town that, in the words of one briefing officer, ‘‘we had to destroy in order to save.’’ In fact this makes more sense if you are looking at a military topographical map, studying perimeters, enemy emplacements, and the IV Corps area canal system. Otherwise it’s something of a non sequitur.
From the Delta, Herr went to observe (a ludicrously passive word for much of what a war correspondent does) the battle of Hue. The Marine objective was to retake the Imperial City of Hue which the North Vietnamese regulars had occupied in the process of their offensive. The NVA troops holding the Citadel at Hue were very good at what they did.
Herr reports from the Perfume River across from the Citadel in the days before the fortress finally fell. Things got no better on the far side.
On the worst days, no one expected to get through it alive. A despair set in among members of the battalion that the older ones, the veterans of two other wars, had never seen before. Once or twice, when the men from Graves Registration took the personal effects from the packs and pockets of dead Marines, they found letters from home that had been delivered days before and were still unopened.
We were running some wounded onto the back of a half-ton truck, and one of the young Marines kept crying from his stretcher. His sergeant held both of his hands, and the Marine kept saying, ‘‘Shit, Sarge, I ain’t gone make it. Oh damn, I’m gone die, ain’t I?’’ ‘‘No you ain’t gonna die, for Christ’s sake,’’ the sergeant said. ‘‘Oh yeah, Sarge, yeah, I am.’’ ‘‘Crowley,’’ the sergeant said, ‘‘you ain’t hurt that bad. I want you to just shut the fuck up. You ain’t done a thing except bitch ever since we got to this fucking Hue City.’’ But the sergeant didn’t really know. The kid had been hit in the throat and you couldn’t tell about those. Throat wounds were bad . . .
From Hue, by way of Danang, Herr was on his way to Khe Sanh, a Marine base where an unprecedented force of North Vietnamese regulars were laying down a day-and-night barrage of mortars and rockets. Roads were closed; air supply and evacuation required daily and costly exercises in the impossible. The Marines and some Army Special Forces troops held. It was a siege, the great siege of the war, perhaps, and for one of the two months it lasted Herr was inside the wire that might or might not hold through the night.
What emerged in Dispatches was the transcendence of New Journalism in one of the greatest nonfiction works of its time.
Fellow reporters, officers, ordinary soldiers, and Marines come within the span of Herr’s illumination the way the Russian soldiers at Borodino fall under Tolstoy’s in War and Peace, characters made memorable by a line, an exchange, or a gesture.
No New Journalist that I’m familiar with left a book for us that succeeds in being so utterly of its time and so timeless. Yes, the Nam was a rock-and-roll war, a Sixties war if you like. However, be assured that Dispatches, with its poetry flaring from the vernacular to the sublime, is a work proved upon our pulses today. If insight is what saves us from ourselves, if perception is our prayer, let this book stand. May it last a thousand years. It will be tragically relevant wherever wars are fought and the young die over things that seem strangely resolvable in retrospect.
‘‘Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam,’’ the author declares to us in the last words of the book, in the very spirit of runic truth that was the war, ‘‘we’ve all been there.’’
Robert Stone

What People are Saying About This

John Le Carre

The best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.

Hunter S. Thompson

Dispatches puts the rest of us in the shade.

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Dispatches 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dispatches is one of the most realistic books I've read. While reading this book I could almost smell the damp and mildewed bunkers, feel the rumble of fire fights, and appreciate the madness within each soldier. Herr made me feel as though I spent the weekend at Khe Sahn. Vivid descriptions wouldn't let me put this book down.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Merchandise exceeded expectation.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a very intense and descriptive account of the happenings in the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1968. From time off in Saigon and Hong Kong to his time spent in a bunker during the siege of Khe Sanh, Herr covers every aspect of the war. He shows how so many soldiers were so drastically affected by the war. He describes the strange, fearful moments when at night the jungle suddenly goes silent. Herr tells tales of Marines throwing themselves on top of him with incoming fire, people he has only just met minutes or hours before that are risking their lives to protect his. As I mentioned before, this book is very descriptive and one of the best examples of this is this sentence, ¿Every fifth round was a tracer, and when Spooky was working, everything stopped while that solid stream of violent red poured down out of the black sky.¿ In this sentence Herr is retelling the feelings felt by everyone as they watched the gunships flying overhead, unleashing the fury of Gatling-style guns that could fire thousands of rounds per minute. Not only does Herr convey the impact of such a sight; he does it in such a manner that a vivid image is formed in the reader¿s mind. One of the more disturbing and insightful quotes in the book comes when a Marine at Khe Sanh learns that his wife is pregnant, but not with his child. Herr retells with this account, ¿¿Oh don¿t worry,¿ Orrin said. ¿There¿s gonna be a death in my family. Just soon¿s I git home.¿ And then he laughed. It was a terrible laugh, very quiet and intense, and it was the thing that made everyone who heard it believe Orrin.¿ This quote shows how badly some soldiers were transformed during the war. A man who used to be very peaceful and calm would now snap at the slightest provocation. He would now plan the death of his wife for cheating on him. With these examples I would definitely say that one of the strengths of this book is its vivid descriptions. The other strength of this book is probably how it covers the emotional and physical aspects of the war. I think that the worst part of the book is how it sometimes reads like a documentary, as there doesn¿t seem to be any people or characters involved at times.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A must read for anyone interested in a view of the Vietnam War from the bunkers of Khe Sanh, the streets of Hue and the decks of the Hueys.
Autodafe on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I consider this to be the best personal narrative written about the Vietnam War.
jensho on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Harrowing accounts of the experiences of journalists during the Vietnam War.
latefordinner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Powerfull front line account from the briefing room to the wire at Khe Sahn. Highly recommended.
Sandydog1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very Burroughs-esque. A taught, rambling, disjointed, gritty correspondent's account of the Vietnam experiences with special emphasis on Tet and Khe San. Herr co-wrote the screenplays in "Apocolypse Now" and "Full Metal Jacket". Soldiers from this memoir clearly ended up in those movies.
kraaivrouw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Vietnam was the world of my childhood. I remember watching it on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. I can remember the incredible gut-wrenching footage and some of the absolutely breathtaking still photos. I remember the footage of Saigon falling and the day Jimmy Carter gave amnesty to the folks who left for Canada. My interested was further piqued by my parents, who were both anti-war activists.In high school I started reading some books about the war and one of them was Dispatches. I read a lot of Vietnam books in my life, but this one is the best of the best. First there's the writing style which is hard-hitting but poetic - stream-of-consciousness when the consciousness is out on the ragged edge. I realized re-reading this that my fiction writing was definitely influenced by his writing style.Next, there's the gut cold honesty of the book, the author's ability to tell a story, and his fearless self-reflection. Particularly valuable is his analysis of his own compulsion to go to Vietnam, to voluntarily ride out with the Marines, and the dangerous romanticism of that choice. This is a man wrestling with the knowledge that he voluntarily put himself in harm's way and that there is damage from that that he'll struggle with for the rest of his life.Also prominent are thoughts about American soldiers, particularly Marines, and all the ways they both disgust and compel him. He presents a clear picture of men and boys who are as brutal as they are compassionate and he ponders their futures.I have always thought that the reason we've gone into recent conflicts and stayed for years is in part due to the lock-down of the press by the military. War correspondents and photographers no longer roam free. Footage and photos tend to be pretty sterilized. I suspect that if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be over if they were in our living rooms every night.If you want to read a beautifully written, highly intelligent, and heartbreaking memoir of the Vietnam War, this is the one to read. It will inform you in ways you can't currently imagine and it will make you think differently about Vietnam, but also about our current warfare. It's a beautiful, amazing book.
Borg-mx5 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An excellent account from the Vietnam War. Heartbreaking at times,
jayne_charles on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I often find I learn a lot about geography and history through reading fiction, and though this book isn't fiction but a war correspondent's account of being in Vietnam in the late '60s, I hoped for the same here. My knowledge of the Vietnam war isn't good, and I hoped this book would remedy that. Unfortunately it's not an ideal first port of call, as it assumes a lot of prior knowledge that non-Americans may not possess, and was peppered with initials and acronyms but had no glossary or any other means of explanation. I connected with it only in patches - where the narrative occasionally narrowed its focus down to to a single person, and then it was possible to understand and to empathise, but these sections were relatively sparse. All in all I would concede it is fantastically well written, and worthy of more than the speed-reading I resorted to in the end.
dryfly on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the best book I've read on the Vietnam war. I'm not telling how books I've read on this subject though. Well written and grabbed my attention: I couldn't put it down.
awilson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After reading this book you'll feel like you came home from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I had to read a book for my US History Honors class in high school and I picked this one, knowing nothing about it. From the moment I started reading this book, I felt that I was there. It was was an undescribable feeling. It was awesome!