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Michael Herr

Dispatches (1977)



New Journalism

Daniel Snowman and Malcolm Bradbury say of new journalism that it "changed the look of the magazines and newspapers, emphasizing the performance of journalism, not its objectivity. Journalists were part of the fear-and-loathing scene itself, extremists of prose." (283) Practitioners include: Joan Didion, Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe. It would take another lecture to consider new journalism adequately, and the best person to give it would be Maureen Freeley, not myself. However, I just want to suggest that the apparently innocuous definition of new journalism as "emphasizing the performance of journalism, not its objectivity" encapsulates the literary minefield we are stepping into here. For what is objectivity in the context of responsible reportage? Is it telling it as the establishment perceives it or is it telling it like it is? Much of the achievement of the cultural work in the sixties was to challenge the values and assumptions encoded in mainstream discourses and ask whether there weren’t alternative modes of perception and analysis. The new emphasis on performance certainly questioned what American society might have meant by "objectivity" and worked to alter the consensus viewpoint, by disrupting not only the conventional text but also the mainstream value systems associated with its conventionality.


Consider this comment near the end of Dispatches:


Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it, all it could do was take the most profound event of the American decade and turn it into a communications pudding, taking its most obvious, undeniable history and making it into a secret history. And the very best correspondents knew even more than that. (175)


As commentaries on the sixties proliferate, we are increasingly made aware that it is not easy to evaluate the exact significance of much of the sixties cultural radicalism. To what extent does the radical, performative aspect of the cultural production signify a clear, radical, political agenda as well? In a recent television documentary on the sixties, scripted by Germaine Greer, it was pointed out that even during the sixties a majority of American youth still held conservative attitudes. And yet, my own assessment would be that the sixties and seventies were a time when political and cultural radicalism was very visible, if we use the term "political" not in its narrow but in a much broader sense. Beatles lyrics celebrated "talk about the revolution," but most of the revolution was talk and posturing. In terms of Malcolm Bradbury’s distinctions, this was more about generating a different kind of culture around youth identity than about political activism. In the fifties, On the Road is one landmark of youth culture, but with increased economic power and with the statistical preponderance of youth from the baby boom generation, youth culture had a confidence, even an arrogance, which went beyond anything seen in the fifties. And certainly one aspect of New Journalism, and of Herr’s Dispatches, is that events are described from the perspective of the young generation. The point of view of the young is validated, even when it is confrontational in its regard of older values and ideas. Thus Tom Wolfe wrote the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968, and Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1972. Both report on a drug culture, which clearly questions and undermines the values of conformity and respectability we associate with the fifties. But they report on this scene as participant observers, rather than as impartial, judgemental observers. Personally, I think the use of the technique of participant observer is more important than the issue of the putative "drug-induced" literary style. We know that many 19th century authors also depended on drugs to fuel their literary inspiration, but that doesn’t mean that Balzac, Baudelaire, Coleridge, de Quincy and Poe all wrote in the same literary style. So I think we need to be a little more analystic in our appreciation or criticism of Herr, when it comes to assessing his literary achievement.


American Foreign Policy and Domestic Policy

One effect of new journalism, mirrored elsewhere in American novels, is that the distinction between fact and fiction, news reports and storytelling is blurred to the point of reversals. Charles Olson theorized this excitingly at the time by questioning the distinction between myth and history, and by incorporating historical documents into his Maximus poems. But one could also look to the writings of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, or Gore Vidal to see that this was a very widespread trend. (It is of course a trend that started much earlier in American literature, and was arguably always there from the start: one could go back to modernism and cite Ezra Pound and John dos Passos, as well as Ernest Hemingway, as previous practitioners of the art of including history in literary genres). But it does complicate the ways in which we can and perhaps must read a text like Dispatches. We can’t just read it for its bravura performance, since it also narrates history and a particularly crucial passage in American history.


So to start with history and this entry from John Adams’ diary: "I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth." (John Adams, qv. Campbell & Kean 244). They go on to comment:


America from this perspective had a special purpose in the world, one that was closely tied to the process of redemption. America would banish darkness with light, bring freedom in place of slavery, and save the world from condemnation. Not only would America exemplify the virtues necessary for long-term success, but it would also apply those same virtues to the wider world and to the way in which nations dealt with each other on the international stage in the future. (244)


It is interesting to consider President Clinton’s speech on foreign policy delivered here at Warwick just before Christmas 2000 in the light of that commentary. For he too exemplifies that sense of American mission to save and redeem the world. He spoke as a visionary politician, about to retire from the pragmatic day to day pressures of realpolitik, able instead to set out an inspired agenda for the global future. It was an agenda which rested on a belief in free trade and the market economy, on the expansion of the market for IT right into third world communities, and which envisaged a radical repositioning of agricultural production to those third world countries which could do it best and cheapest, without expensive subsidies. But putting the details aside, the most powerful and most fascinating aspect of the event was Clinton’s unswerving belief that it was his role to envision the future. The speech was a strong signal of his readiness to act on the global political and diplomatic scene to bring his "third way" blueprint into reality, for the better good of the global population.


In his essay on White Noise, Frank Letricchia reminds us that one of DeLillo’s characters in Americana (1971) says that television came over on the Mayflower. And one does need to go back to that moment to understand the American ideology informing foreign policy in the latter part of the twentieth century. America is the ideal, utopian world of freedom, and the Manifest Destiny of its chosen people is to build the City on the Hill, to create God’s paradise here and now. Despite the ironies and contradictions, Clinton is a fine example of this tradition, as was President Kennedy. They are both charismatic, sexy presidents, with the sexual peccadilloes of great men in powerful office, who can be criticised for gross hypocrisy and for self-seeking aggrandisement. Yet they both embody and articulate an American Vision, which is informed by good (if arguably misguided) intentions. Leaving aside the scandals for a moment, one common thread is their commitment to democratic egalitarianism and to late capitalism. For example, Kennedy had total faith in his advisor, Walt Whitman Rostow’s model that only under capitalism could countries totally fulfil the evolutionary patterns of modernization. And of course, as President Clinton reiterated in his speech on December 14th 2000, who are we in the West who already benefit from modernization to deny the same aspirations to a comfortable life style to peoples in the developing countries.


So from the point of view of the dominant American ideology, which equates capitalism with freedom and with fulfilled lives not for the few but for the masses, it would have been morally wrong not to intervene in Vietnam. The United States as the redeemer and saviour of the globe had a duty to shore up a teetering capitalist economy and political democracy in a destabilized post-colonial situation. For, again according to Rostow, it is at such moments of transition to high mass-consumption made possible by late capitalism, that nations might be most vulnerable to communism. So, we ought not to demonize American involvement in Vietnam; not only political rhetoric but also deep seated cultural beliefs reassured many Americans, including the policy makers, that they were doing the right thing. I am not a historian, but it seems to me, we must be careful not to read American politics through British political formations. Odd as it might seem to us, the more radical gesture might be involvement in global politics in order to free developing nations and give them the same benefits of modernity, which America has already proved possible. Arguably, the conservative position is that of ignorance and lack of concern for foreign affairs and a refusal to engage in the struggle against communism. I can’t say I thought that at the time of the Vietnam conflict, nor do I think it now; but I can at least try to imagine why American intervention in Vietnam happened, and that it was not merely from the worst of motives.


And yet the involvement in Vietnam, first of "military advisors" and then of increasing numbers of drafted troops, seemed to many at the time to be an example of the worst excesses of American imperialism, replaying the colonial expansionism which had in the 19th century decimated Native Americans and overrun older, Hispanic cultures. The hypocrisy was the worst thing. Generals kept on saying that just one more army division would tip the balance, until five hundred thousand troops were committed. By the end of December 1967 the number was 485,300, and the war-time peak was 542,400 American military personnel in January 1969.


The Tet offensive "shattered the mask of official illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves." Said Senator Robert Kennedy (qv Carroll & Noble 405). The Tet offensive took place at the beginning of the Vietnamese New Year, January 31st, 1968, when the first invasion of Saigon occurred. It was a turning point in US involvement in Vietnam. Approximately 60% of the North Vietnamese Army were presumed destroyed during the offensive, and about 14,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed. One major reason why even Robert Kennedy spoke of the shattered mask of official illusion, and why protest against the war was so vociferous, not only in the US, but in the UK also, was of course the presence of photographers and cameramen, with the technology to relay footage of the atrocities into people’s living rooms on a daily basis.  From around 1966, every evening I watched the news coverage and saw images of innocent women, children, old men and yes young men of fighting age, lying strewn at odd angles, just as Herr describes, or being carried out of burning villages, or streaming for miles away from the combat zone towards the refugee camps, which Nixon would later order bombed. The impact of those images was not to desensitise me, it was not to induce viewer fatigue, it was to radicalize my political sensibilities and to convince me that whatever else this was, it was not a just war. Dispatches is as much about the experience of the reporters and photographers as it is about the conflict itself. Its subject is what reporters did to get a story and how they experienced this. It can thus be described as "performative" but what that means in this context is that the reader is reminded of the actuality of the text (maybe that should be actualité, Fr. News). So, I cannot maintain objectivity in reading Dispatches, nor was Dispatches written from a position of objectivity, nor was it written about objectivity. It was written about the impossibility of objectivity. It would be interesting to count how many times Herr uses the word "impossible" or its variants in his text; the impossible nature of the war and of covering it, indeed of being there at all, is one of the major themes of the book.


I would strongly recommend that you read the chapters listed on the handout if your grip on American foreign policy and its relation to domestic events is at all shaky. I think all three chapters offer introductions to the ways in which the Vietnam conflict impacted on American culture, and they all highlight some of the contradictions in American culture and society which emerged during the late sixties and through into the seventies. If you don’t have the time to read & view the extensive library holdings on Vietnam, these chapters will provide you with some context within which to consider Herr’s text. They indicate the ways in which American ideology is constructed on the sense of exceptionalism. That is to say, America has a mission to protect freedom and liberty and in the twentieth century to aid other peoples to achieve a life style identical to the America way, one which upholds the values of individual freedom and political democracy. They also trace the history of the development of the counter-culture in the late sixties, and discuss the contradictions in American ideology, in particular the underlying racism, which persists in muted form even after improvements in domestic policy, through LBJ’s civil rights legislation in 1964.




Film and Mythopoeia

So I want to move deeper into the text of Dispatches to look at one important theme, which Herr comes back to time and again. Namely the theme of "cowboys and Indians." When we weren’t playing cricket, the boy next door and I most often played "cowboys and Indians." Being a girl I usually ended up playing the Indian, and having to make do with the arrow with the rubber sucker on its tip, while he got to play with guns that had caps which exploded noisily. Which is to say, American popular culture of the fifties reinforced a cold war mentality, by offering images of White Anglo-Saxon masculinity successfully combating Red Indians in order to re-establish law and order and impose civilization on the savages. And we happily played the game. I don’t think we ever sympathised with the plight of the Red Indians, they were history’s losers, but we probably bought the myth of the righteous gunman. Violence was necessary in order to cleanse the desert of evil Indians and Chicanos, and also of disreputable, lawless white settlers; and then law and order would win the day. (And all this before lunch time.) So, the generation, which was in its early twenties in the late sixties, like me grew up in the fifties on a diet of TV series like Laramie, and movies directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda and John Wayne. I indulged in childhood reminiscence because of one telling phrase. At the time we never thought of them as "Westerns," in our minds as in our play, the genre was "Cowboys and Indians."


Just highlighting a couple of quotations cited in those chapters on background reading should make clear the implications of this, if they aren’t already crystal clear. Firstly, Campbell & Kean remind us of Luther Standing Bear’s comment on the white man:


He was "still a foreigner and an alien … who excused his presence … by saying that he had been guided by the will of his God; and in so saying absolved himself of all responsibility for his appearance in a land occupied by other men." (248)


Secondly, and perhaps even more saliently, Vine Deloria Jr., one of the founding members of AIM (American Indian Movement):


"We have more in common with the Africans and Vietnamese and all the non-Western people than we do with the Anglo-Saxon culture of the United States. We are a tribal people with tribal sympathies. An Indian doesn’t have to know, or understand, anything about Kenya, or Burma, or Peru, or Vietnam. He feels the way they feel." (qv Carroll & Noble 409).


Campbell and Kean recommend reading Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War to set the record straight by remembering the Vietnam War from the point of view of the Vietnamese, not just as an episode in American culture. And certainly one aspect of American cultural imperialism, whether from the right or the left, is that it is so often expressed as an American tragedy not as a South-East Asian one. However, if one wanted literary confirmation of Vine Deloria Jr.’s assertion that Native American’s experience an intuitive identification with other cultures normally perceived as inimical to US interests, the obvious place to go is Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 novel, Ceremony.


In Dispatches Herr draws attention to the mythopoeia of the Western, the extent to which American mythic identity is described through the classic western scenario:

 When the last falling-off contacts were still going on and the last casualties being dusted off, Command added Dak To to our victory list, a reflexive move supported by the Saigon press corps but never once or for a minute by reporters who’d seen it going on from metres or even inches away, and this latest media defection added more bitterness to an already rotten mix, leaving the commanding general of the 4th to wonder out loud and in my hearing whether we were or weren’t all Americans in this thing together. I said I thought we were. For sure we were.

 "…Wow I love it in the movies when they say like, ‘Okay Jim, where do you want it?’"

 "Right! Right! Yeah, beautiful, I don’t want it at all! Haw, shit … where do you fucking want it?"

 Mythopathic moment: Fort Apache, where Henry Fonda as the new colonel says to John Wayne, the old hand, "We saw some Apache as we neared the Fort," and John Wayne says, "If you saw them, sir, they weren’t Apache." But this colonel is obsessed, brave like a maniac, not very bright, a West Point aristo wounded in his career and his pride, posted out to some Arizona shithole with only marginal consolation; he’s a professional and this is a war, the only war we’ve got. So he gives the John Wayne information a pass and he and half his command get wiped out. More a war movie than a Western, Nam paradigm, Vietnam, not a movie, no jive cartoon either where the characters get smacked around and electrocuted and dropped from heights, flattened out and frizzed black and broken like a dish, then up again and whole and back in the game, "Nobody dies," as someone said in another war movie. (43-4)


This is the start of a run of allusions to movies. The next one works in a reference to Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence (1973):


We’d watched a movie (Nevada Smith, Steve McQueen working through a hard-revenge scenario, riding away at the end burned clean but somehow empty and old too, like he’d lost his margin for regeneration through violence) […] (54)


And then we get the pay off:


"Come on," the captain said, "we’ll take you out to play Cowboys and Indians." We walked from Song Be in a long line, maybe a hundred men; rifles, heavy automatics, mortars, portable one-shot rocket launchers, radios, medics; breaking into some kind of sweep formation, five files with small teams of specialists in each file. A gunship flew close hover-cover until we came to some low hills, then two more ships came along and peppered the hills until we’d passed safely through them. It was a beautiful operation. We played all morning until someone on the point got something — a "scout," they thought, and then they didn’t know. They couldn’t even tell for sure whether he was from a friendly tribe or not, no markings on his arrows because his quiver was empty, like his pockets and his hands. The captain thought about it during the walk back, but when we got to camp he put it in his report, "One VC killed;" good for the unit, he said, not bad for the captain either.


Search and Destroy, more a gestalt than a tactic, brought up alive and steaming from the Command psyche. Not just a walk and a firefight, in action it should have been named the other way around, pick through the pieces and see if you could work together a count, the sponsor wasn’t buying any dead civilians. The VC had an ostensibly similar tactic called Find and Kill. Either way, it was us looking for him looking for us looking for him, war on a Cracker Jack box, repeated to diminishing returns. (55)


I don’t want to labour the point, but it is clear that Herr is aware of the extent to which journalists and GIs alike have all had their "movie-fed war fantasies" (157), and that his recollection of the Vietnam theatre of war emphasises several related issues:


  1. The heightened sense of unreality, as if everyone were still acting in a Hollywood movie.
  2. The extent to which journalists, US marines and other troops defined the reality of the Vietnam conflict in reference to mythopoeic images from westerns and from other Hollywood genres and "read" the situation in terms of those archetypal, generic western scenarios.
  3. Above all, the transparency of American ideology, through the constant, inappropriate transference of American cultural references onto an alien landscape and culture.
  4. The implicit failure of the American engagement in a Vietnamese civil war because American Command can only perceive Vietnam in American terms and not in and of itself. Its problem is it believes its own propaganda.
  5. On the other hand, by the late sixties in the context of the civil rights movement, viewers of movies can decode the western myth to see the racist hubris it encodes. And makers of movies who remake the myth of regeneration through violence have themselves begun to foreground the existential emptiness of the lone gunman’s retributive justice.



Analysis & Judgement

I want to look again at the passages I’ve cited above, not for the content (the themes and preoccupations), but to see what can be said about the literary style of new journalism.


First this is a memoir, published two years after the formal end of war, four years after the evacuation of Saigon, and roughly a decade after the events its mainly describes; i.e. the run up to the Tet offensive and the Tet offensive itself, mainly experienced by Herr at Khe Sanh and at Hué. As a memoir it draws on Herr’s personal experience of the war, and we can’t be sure as readers how much was written at the time, and how much is recollected or at least edited in tranquillity later. But the prose style does emphasis the individuality of his specific point of view: e.g. "this latest media defection added more bitterness to an already rotten mix, leaving the commanding general of the 4th to wonder out loud and in my hearing whether we were or weren’t all Americans in this thing together. I said I thought we were. For sure we were." The story is told through the random encounters and exchanges, but I think there is an assumption that the specific exchange which Herr happens to participate in is representative of the larger, general picture. In that respect he is writing in a tradition which stretches back to Walt Whitman’s belief in the "divine concrete," the "concrete particular," in Pound’s phrase, which can act as an illuminating detail, rendering the more objective historical account redundant.


As well as being a memoir, this is as I’ve already said observer participation. This is a condition of the text and its narrative throughout. The reporters play alongside and even along with the soldiers. This does raise the question as to whether they collude with the American presence and the American interpretation of events. Yet, at every stage, and there are a couple of instances in the passages I’ve looked at, Herr is at pains to detach his account from the official view and the official record. One strategy for doing this is that he, unlike more conventional journalists, usually misses the press briefings, but always seeks out and records the opinions and responses of the individual, ordinary GIs. Observe participation also involves being in the battle or combat zone, and assessing the official reports against the truth as he witnesses it, the evidence of his own eyes. The combination of observer participation, and memoir writing drawing on notes and dispatches written at the time, is a tension between absolute immediacy and ironic or cynical detachment, a tension that pulls both ways and only just retains its equilibrium.


Ford Madox Ford, who collaborated with Joseph Conrad and helped him to perfect his English prose style, had a famous dictum: "write as you speak and speak as you write." One characteristic of Herr’s style is that he pushes this dictum to the extreme. He does drop allusions to writers and thinkers he admires into the text: William James (brother of Henry), Ernest Hemingway, Wallace Stevens, Graham Greene, as well as Joseph Conrad; and that list of prior authors and texts suggests that in the literal sense of the word Herr is a post-modernist author. He also inserts allusions to several rock & roll lyrics, including The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, Rolling Stones, etc. These too identify him as postmodern, in his willingness to splice references to high modernist literary texts with allusions to and quotations from contemporary popular music. But I think it worth considering the extent to which these references also explain and validate his prose style. He does allow himself the ellipses and fragmentation, which more usually occurs in modernist poetry or pop lyrics. The "argument" of the prose often proceeds through imaginative links, association of ideas, thematic similarities, rather than through the procedures of expository prose. Snippets of conversations are presented not explained, the effect is almost like collage: a device developed by Gertrude Stein long before William Burroughs got round to doing it!


Another way of considering this aspect of his work is to compare it to the cutting and editing techniques of Hollywood cinema, notorious for the short cut, rather than the long European cut. Barely establish the context and the content then move rapidly to the next part of the story. Whichever paradigm you prefer, that rapid movement from reportage of how Command records a "victory," to how the Colonel signifies on Herr and Herr responds, to the italicized exchange about killing in the movies, to the extended recollection of the Forte Apache scenario, is characteristic of the rapid pace of the prose. It is also characteristic of the way Herr states his position. It is implicit in much of his narration, as an attitude, a tone of voice; but it also builds up through the connections he forces the reader to make.


At the end of this particular run of paragraphs, which I’ve extracted for commentary, the syntax gets as attenuated as its possible to get and still make sense. If he offers us a summing up at this point he does it in a flip, throw away manner, yet one that accentuates the bitterness that lurks just beneath surface of some much of this text: "More a war movie than a Western, Nam paradigm, Vietnam, not a movie, no jive cartoon either where the characters get smacked around and electrocuted and dropped from heights, flattened out and frizzed black and broken like a dish, then up again and whole and back in the game, "Nobody dies," as someone said in another war movie." In rhetorical terms this is a classic example of a phrase which means exactly the opposite of what it says. I.e. litotes. I think technically much of this text moves beyond irony into litotes, as the most extreme rhetorical figure for describing the most extreme situation and its concomitant emotions.


Herr also uses metaphor ironically, if metaphor is the right term for what he does here: "We played all morning until someone on the point got something — a "scout," they thought, and then they didn’t know. They couldn’t even tell for sure whether he was from a friendly tribe or not, no markings on his arrows because his quiver was empty, like his pockets and his hands." It’s a complex use of metaphor, because he undermines and subverts it from the start. The detached irony tells us that it is inappropriate and deadly to think of local inhabitants of South Vietnam as "Indians," and yet it is through the telling turn of phrase that Herr points out the dangers of the American ideologically formed perceptions of the locals. In fact, there are a number of highly stylized rhetorical devices at work in Herr’s prose, mirrorings and reversals which combine an epic sensibility with a sense of the ludicrous triviality of the conflict: "Search and Destroy, more a gestalt than a tactic, brought up alive and steaming from the Command psyche. Not just a walk and a firefight, in action it should have been named the other way around, pick through the pieces and see if you could work together a count, the sponsor wasn’t buying any dead civilians. The VC had an ostensibly similar tactic called Find and Kill. Either way, it was us looking for him looking for us looking for him, war on a Cracker Jack box, repeated to diminishing returns." So although he doesn’t use conventional grammar and punctuation, Herr has an ear for strong rhetorical and figurative verbal formations; his is not "bad" or "lax" prose, but a new kind of prose drawing on modernist and contemporary sources to allow him to report and comment in a condensed prose style.




Rock & Roll / City on the Hill or "We destroyed the city in order to save it."

In his brief comment on the Vietnam War, Richard Slotkin concludes by saying:


It is clear that this widely (if never universally) persuasive invocation of myths obscured both the nature of the conflict and the character of our participation in it, with grave military and social consequences. One officer aptly (and without irony) remarked at the time of the Tet offensive in 1968, "We destroyed the city in order to save it." (563) 


If the military thought and spoke like that, clearly journalists had to look elsewhere for information and analysis. In terms of the structure of the text "Khe Sanh" seems the most important section; it is longer and it is central. In terms of ideas too, I think it is not just accidental that Herr dwells on it a little longer than the rest. Yes, of course it’s there because it’s the height of the Tet offensive, and yet it also encapsulates the nature of American engagement with Vietnam. It is a kind of anti-"city on the hill," a negative image of the first Puritan settler’s vision of God’s kingdom on earth. Vietnam functioned as a mirror image of America, when Americans gazed at Vietnam they saw a mirror image of themselves. Even the map of Vietnam can be viewed as a mirror image of California. And just as the first Puritan settlers read the New England landscape through their own cultural lens, viewing it as a "wilderness" to be supplanted by God’s kingdom on earth, so Americans in Vietnam read that landscape through their own cultural baggage. In this respect, Herr is both cultural critic and to some extent implicated:


The Puritan belief that Satan dwelt in Nature could have been born here, where even on the coldest, freshest mountaintops you could smell jungle and that tension between rot and genesis that all jungles give off. It is ghost-story country, and for Americans it had been the scene of some of the war’s vilest surprises. (80)


After all he too is an American, and even if he is highly aware and self reflective, he shares the fear of "gooks" and their territory:

Oh! That terrain! The bloody, maddening uncanniness of it! When the hideous Battle of Dak To ended at the top of Hill 875, we announced that 4,000 of them had been killed; it had been the purest slaughter, our losses were bad, but clearly it was another American Victory. But when the top of the hill was reached, the number of NV found was four. Four. Of course more died, hundreds more, but the corpses kicked and counted and photographed and buried numbered four. Where, Colonel? And how, and why? Spooky. Everything up there was spooky, and it would have been that way even if there had been no war. You were in a place where you didn’t belong, where they things were glimpsed for which you would have to pay and where things went unglimpsed for which you would also have to pay, a place where they didn’t play with the mystery but killed you straight off for trespassing. (81)


In military terms the Americans misjudged Khe Sanh’s importance and significance, it was a non event, the NVA just bypassed it. But as a symbol it stands for American values: the descriptions of how it’s established and maintained, the confrontations at press briefings about its conditions, the way in which it becomes the stage on which the US Cavalry and the Marines act out their rivalry — all contribute to its accretion of significance beyond the merely tactical. I would argue that by placing it at the centre of the text, Michael Herr invents a structure for Dispatches, which embodies the subject matter. Further more it cements his authorial credentials and permits him to maintain a position, which balances profound irony with inevitable collusion. I think he does manage to find a textual structure, which conveys the multiple contradictions and ironies of the American presence in Vietnam, and that he also enacts these throughout his prose at the micro level as well. So, framed by "Breathing Out" and "Breathing In," "Khe Sanh" sits in the middle and around it are further reflections about the American experience, what it is like to be a GI or a photojournalist, but never any full exposition of the Vietnamese sense of history and politics. Between the airborne entry and the final exit, is a site of empty heroics, a meaningless victory, and the destruction of a beautiful city. Herr can fly in and out, take it or leave it to a large extent. He has the grace to admit all that in his text; and in this respect I find this a far more satisfactory treatment of the Vietnam conflict than Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, for which Herr scripted the narration.


I think one gets a measure of Herr’s achievement when one compares his book to Coppola’s film. Coppola’s problem is the need to use a story line to hang the madness of the conflict onto. Yet by going to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and quoting Eliot’s Hollow Men, he fails to find the narrative structure which corresponds to the actuality of what occurred in Vietnam. He literally loses the plot and ends up in fantasy; yet the first half of the film vividly portrays that the Vietnam conflict was both fantastical and mad. Herr not only knows this, he knows how to convey it in his prose and doesn’t capitulate to the yearning for narrative conventions and reassuring closure.


Helen M Dennis

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