Michael Herr: Dispatches (1977) Literature and War Readalong December 2012

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Dispatches is Michael Herr’s account of his time in Vietnam as a front-line reporter. It’s an example of what is commonly called gonzo journalism as invented by Hunter S. Thompson. The beginning reminded me of William S. Burroughs’ books like Naked Lunch or Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Pure 60s writing, fragmented, high on dope and high-strung as well. Not my cup of tea anymore. I used to read this type of books as a teenager, nowadays I prefer more lyrical approaches with a stronger narrative.

What Herr tried to do in the beginning, is make the reader experience as close as possible, what it was like to be there. I thought it was difficult to follow. I lost interest more than once and couldn’t help comparing it to Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece. I’m afraid Dispatches doesn’t hold up. On the other hand it’s not fair to compare them because they are totally different. O’Brien’s novel is a blend of fiction and non-fiction with a lot of metafictional elements. Herr tries to tell it as it was. Whatever he describes, even though it is filtered through his experience, it’s still true while O’Brien embellished and made things up. Sure, we could argue that truth is relative anyway and that’s precisely what O’Brien did argue. Be it as it may, Herr didn’t consciously change anything to make it “more real”.

Dispatches consists of 6 parts and while I had problems with the first three, I really liked the last three called Illumination Rounds, Colleagues and Breathing Out. Illumination Rounds is a series of portraits of soldiers Herr met in Vietnam and shows the wide range of people. How some of them got affected so badly by the war that they didn’t want to go back home, got addicted to it, or got crazy. They are just small vignettes but I found each of them powerful. Colleagues was equally interesting. This time fellow reporters and photo journalists were at the center of the story. The most prominent ones being Sean Flynn, Erroll Flynn’s son, a photojournalist and Dana Stone, another reporter. The two men disappeared in 1970, on the Cambodian border were they were said to have been captured by communist guerillas and were never seen again. Quite a sad story, really. Both were friends of Michael Herr and while he isn’t too outspoken it is obvious that he felt deeply when he heard about their disappearance. I attached two tributes that I found on YouTube.

Breathing Out focusses on the return home and how everything just seemed so dull. Something that you see mentioned often in Vietnam accounts is that the soldiers enjoyed being there to some extent because it was so intense.

An important part of the book looks at how the journalists were treated. Many of the soldiers were glad to have them because they wanted people to know how it really was. There were some others who hated them for being there without having to but purely because they wanted to. This was precisely the reason why others admired them. It takes guts to go somewhere like that if you don’t have to. The reasons for the journalists in Herr’s account to be there were very rarely political. Some were adventurers and Vietnam was just a way to combine making money with traveling and experiencing something nobody else had experienced.

Reading this book made me wonder what this war would have been like if it had been fought in the 80s. It’s so much part of 60s culture and was so much influenced by it. What would it have been like without the pot smoking, the music, the attitude of the people?

One part that I found extremely interesting is when Herr writes that arriving in Vietnam took a lot of adjustment at first because they had all seen too many war movies and it took a while until it sank in that this were not just pictures flickering by. I always though that was a newer problem but I guess nowadays it is video games, not movies which blur the lines.

I really can’t say this isn’t a good book but I would have appreciated it more a few years ago and if I had read it some other time. In any case, it felt very authentic, very realistic, gritty but not too graphic. However if you are looking for background information on Vietnam, that’s not the book to turn to.

Other reviews

Reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches (Danielle – A Work in Progress)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

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Dispatches was the last book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The first in 2013 is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (2012), 240 pages – US – Iraq war.

Discussion starts on Monday 28 January, 2013.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2013, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2012

People have been announcing their challenges and events for 2012 for a while now so it was about time to let you see the list for next year’s Literature and War Readalong.

It was not easy to compile this list as the books needed to fulfill different criteria one of which was length. I didn’t want to include too many books over 300 pages. The only novel over 500 pages will make up for its length by being very readable.

The other criterion was the country. Like last year, I wanted to include books from as many different countries as possible. I know it looks as if there were more British books than anything else which is true, still I managed to include books from 8 different countries.

I will also join Anna and Serena for the War Through the Generations Challenge that is dedicated to WWI this year. My introductory post is due later this week. The first three novels in the readalong will also count for their challenge.

I have been asked whether it is possible to join but read something different. Since strictly speaking a readalong implies that people read and discuss the same book, it’s difficult but as I’m starting a Literature and War Project I thought of a good solution that will serve anyone who wants to join –  myself as well as I may be in the mood to read more than one novel focusing on war. The idea would be that anyone can join during the last week of the month and either participate in the readalong or review any other war themed book that will then be added to the project page. The objective of the page is to cover many different countries, wars, themes and even genres. For the War Through the Generations Challenge I will for example read a children’s book and maybe a crime novel set in the trenches. Next year I would also like to read a Sci-Fi novel like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War that has been suggested by Max from Pechorin’s Journal. And finally I would like to read more non-fiction.

This year’s readalong will not always take place on Fridays but alternate between Monday and Friday depending on whether the Friday is during the last week of the month or not.

January, Monday  30

Helen Dunmore Zennor in Darkness , 320 p., England (1993), WWI

Spring, 1917 and war haunts the Cornish coastal village of Zennor: ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy-fever. Into this turmoil come DH Lawrence and his German wife Frieda, hoping to escape the war-fever that grips London. They befriend Clare Coyne, a young artist, struggling to console her beloved cousin John William who is on leave from the trenches and suffering from shell shock. Yet the dark tide of gossip and innuendo means that Zennor is neither a place of recovery nor of escape …

February, Monday 27

Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way , 295 p.,  Ireland (2005), WWI

I discovered the book thanks to a comment from Danielle (A Work in Progress)

One of the most vivid and realised characters of recent fiction, Willie Dunne is the innocent hero of Sebastian Barry’s highly acclaimed novel. Leaving Dublin to fight for the Allied cause as a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, he finds himself caught between the war playing out on foreign fields and that festering at home, waiting to erupt with the Easter Rising. Profoundly moving, intimate and epic, A Long Long Waycharts and evokes a terrible coming of age, one too often written out of history.

March, Friday 30

Jean Giono:  Le grand troupeauTo the Slaughterhouse 224 p., France (1931), WWI

Conscription reaches into the hills as the First World War come to a small Provençal community one blazing August. Giono’s fiercly realistic novel contrasts the wholesale destruction of men, land and animals at the front with the moral disintegration of the lonely and anxious people left behind. Yet not all is despair. The novel ends with a message  of hope.

April, Monday 30

Helen Humphreys: Coventry,172 p., England (2008), WWII

Another book discovered thanks to Danielle (here)

On the night of the most devastating German raid on Coventry, two women traverse the city and transform their hearts. Harriet, widowed during WWI, is “”firewatching”” on the cathedral roof when first the factories and then the church itself are set ablaze. In the ensuing chaos she helps a young man, who reminds her of the husband she has lost, find his way back home where he left his mother.

May, Monday 28th

Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls From The Air, 208 p., England (1942), WWII

I owe the discovery of Balchin to Guy (His Futile Preoccupations) who reviewed two of his books here and  here.

With ostentatious lack of concern, Bill Sarratt, his wife and her lover spend the war wining and dining expensively, occasionally sauntering out into the Blitz with cheerful remarks about the shattered night-life of London’s West End. But beneath the false insouciance lies the real strain of a war that has firmly wrapped them all in its embrace. Wit may crackle at the same pace as buildings burn, but personal tragedy lurks appallingly close at hand.

June, Friday 29

Len Deighton:  Bomber, 532 p., England (1970), WWII

This book is a suggestion from Kevin (The War Movie Buff). It is by far the longest on the list but it should be a very quick read.

The classic novel of the Second World War that relates in devastating detail the 24-hour story of an allied bombing raid.

Bomber is a novel war. There are no victors, no vanquished. There are simply those who remain alive, and those who die.Bomber follows the progress of an Allied air raid through a period of twenty-four hours in the summer of 1943. It portrays all the participants in a terrifying drama, both in the air and on the ground, in Britain and in Germany.In its documentary style, it is unique. In its emotional power it is overwhelming.Len Deighton has been equally acclaimed as a novelist and as an historian. In Bomber he has combined both talents to produce a masterpiece.


July, Monday 30

Masuji Ibuse: Black Rain – Kuroi Ame, 304 p., Japan (1969), WWII

I saw the book mentioned on Rise’s blog (in lieu of a field guide) where is was mentioned by Gary (The Parrish Lantern)

Black Rain is centered around the story of a young woman who was caught in the radioactive “black rain” that fell after the bombing of Hiroshima. lbuse bases his tale on real-life diaries and interviews with victims of the holocaust; the result is a book that is free from sentimentality yet manages to reveal the magnitude of the human suffering caused by the atom bomb. The life of Yasuko, on whom the black rain fell, is changed forever by periodic bouts of radiation sickness and the suspicion that her future children, too, may be affected.

lbuse tempers the horror of his subject with the gentle humor for which he is famous. His sensitivity to the complex web of emotions in a traditional community torn asunder by this historical event has made Black Rain one of the most acclaimed treatments of the Hiroshima story.


August, Friday 31

Aaron Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim, 208 p., Israel (1999), WWII

Aharon Appelfeld was the child of middle-class Jewish parents living in Romania at the outbreak of World War II. He witnessed the murder of his mother, lost his father, endured the ghetto and a two-month forced march to a camp, before he escaped. Living off the land in the forests of Ukraine for two years before making the long journey south to Italy and eventually Israel and freedom, Appelfeld finally found a home in which he could make a life for himself. Acclaimed writer Appelfeld’s extraordinary and painful memoir of his childhood and youth is a compelling account of a boy coming of age in a hostile world.


September, Friday 28

Richard Bausch: Peace, 171 p., US (2008), WWII

This was a suggestion from Sandra Rouse in a comment on one of this year’s readalong posts. 

It’s Italy, near Cassino. The terrible winter of 1944. A dismal icy rain falls, unabated, for days. Three American soldiers set out on the gruelling ascent of a perilous Italian mountainside in the murky closing days of the Second World War. Haunted by their sergeant’s cold-blooded murder of a young girl, and with only an old man of uncertain loyalties as their guide, they truge on in a state of barely suppressed terror and confusion. With snipers lying in wait for them, the men are confronted by agonizing moral choices…Taut and propulsive – Peace is a feat of economy, compression, and imagination, a tough and unmistakably contemporary meditation on the corrosiveness of violence, the human cost of war, and the redemptive power of mercy.

October, Monday 29

Maria Angels Anglada The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz, 128 p., Spain (1994), WWII

In the winter of 1991, at a concert in Krakow, an older woman with a marvelously pitched violin meets a fellow musician who is instantly captivated by her instrument. When he asks her how she obtained it, she reveals the remarkable story behind its origin.

Written with lyrical simplicity and haunting beauty—and interspersed with chilling, actual Nazi documentation—The Auschwitz Violin is more than just a novel: It is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of beauty, art, and hope to triumph over the darkest adversity.


November, Friday 30

Gert Ledig The Stalin Front  –  Die Stalinorgel , 198 p., Germany (1955), WWII

1942, at the Eastern Front. Soldiers crouch in horrible holes in the ground, mingling with corpses. Tunneled beneath a radio mast, German soldiers await the order to blow themselves up. Russian tanks, struggling to break through enemy lines, bog down in a swamp, while a German runner, bearing messages from headquarters to the front, scrambles desperately from shelter to shelter as he tries to avoid getting caught in the action. Through it all, Russian artillery—the crude but devastatingly effective multiple rocket launcher known to the Germans as the Stalin Organ and to the Russians as Katyusha—rains death upon the struggling troops.

December, Friday 28

Michael Herr: Dispatches, 262 p., US (1977) Vietnam

This novel has been suggested by at least three people. Kevin (The War Movie Buff) and Max (Pechorin’s Journal)

If you’ve seen the movies Apocalypse Now and Platoon, in whose scripts Michael Herr had a hand, you have a pretty good idea of Herr’s take on Vietnam: a hallucinatory mess, the confluence of John Wayne and LSD.Dispatches reports remarkable front-line encounters with an acid-dazed infantryman who can’t wait to get back into the field and add Viet Cong kills to his long list (“I just can’t hack it back in the World”, he says); with a helicopter door gunner who fires indiscriminately into crowds of civilians; with daredevil photojournalist Sean Flynn, son of Errol, who disappeared somewhere inside Cambodia. Although Herr has admitted that parts of his book are fictional, this is meaty, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Vietnam.

I hope that many of you will feel tempted by the one or the other title on the list and am looking forward to great discussions. The books are all very different in tone, style and themes. As always there are a some I can hardly wait to read.

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How does the readalong work?

This is just a quick info for those who are new to blogging and /or the readalong.

I will review the book on a set date during the last week of the month. If you choose to read along you can either participate in the discussion in the comments page or post a review on your blog. I will add all the links to the reviews at the bottom of my posts.

The books are usually announced with some additional information or a short introduction at the beginning of the month.

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This post will be copied into the Literature and War Redalong 2012 page so you can find it again at any time.