Friday Reads (on Saturday) – Dispatches by Michael Herr  

For years now, there had been no country here but the war 

This is an old book, its pages smelling in the way old books do, slightly yellowed and crumpled. It turned up on our bookshelves, I’m not quite sure how, perhaps borrowed from James’ mum. James pointed it out to me, said “I think you’d enjoy that”.

dispatches

That year the northern monsoons had been dry … and across the raw spaces between hills you could see only the faintest traces of green in the valleys and draws, the hills rising from pale brown to sunbleached yellow and gaping like dark, dried sores wherever the winter airstrikes had torn their sides out.

And of course – I loved it. Dispatches is written by a Vietnam war journalist, first published back in 1977. It’s considered the seminal war book, inspiring dozens of Vietnam war films. My dissertation, when studying history at university, was on American masculinity in the 1980s, on how the aftermath of the Vietnam war affected the psyche of America and particularly American men. As I started researching, I began to wish I had picked a topic that would have focused on the Vietnam war. I became so interested in it, all of it, reading countless novels and autobiographies and watching all the Vietnam war film I could lay my hands on. James’ Dad is Vietnamese, and it was an incredible privilege a few years later to go with his family to Vietnam and to hear James’ dad tell his stories of living through the war and escaping Vietnam.

The moon came up nasty and full, a fat moist piece of decadent fruit. It was soft and saffron-misted when you looked at it, but its light over the sandbags and into the jungle was harsh and bright…

All that is just background as to why I was predisposed to like this book. It says nothing of the sheer skill of the writing. It captures the madness of war, the hallucinatory nature of it all, with so little about actual fights and so much about the boredom, the heat, the fear, the sheer exhaustion.

Mostly what you had was on the agitated side of half-sleep, you thought you were sleeping but you were really just waiting. Night sweats, harsh functioning of consciousness, drifting in and out of your head…

It’s not a story as such – there’s no real narrative structure and you’re dropped in immediately to the middle of the war. Instead its a collection of experiences, memories, images – it is complete stream-of-consciousness stuff.

I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good.

As I mentioned above, there’s basically nothing about the actual facts of war, battle specifics, tactics, no kind of overarching theme about whether war is good or bad. And I think that is what makes it such a classic book, a book that despite all the 1960s popular culture references has really stood the test of time.

It was cold and the sun never came out once, but the rain did things to the corpses that were worse in their way than anything the sun could have done. It was on those days that I realized that the only corpse I couldn’t bear to look at would be the one I would never have to see.

(Sorry about all the quotes – the book is awesome and there were just too many sections I wanted to quote!)

Back in the World now, and a lot of us aren’t making it … I think that Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.

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3 comments

  1. […] Dispatches by Michael Herr: a Vietnam war story, perhaps the Vietnam war story, a collection of memories and images by a war journalist, written in the most visually and sensually arresting way – you really feel as if you are there, suffering the heat and the boredom and the fear. I reviewed it in detail here and really, I can’t recommend it more.  […]

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