One time it was our family, but after a really bad scare, the news was good. My cousin Norman was in Vietnam, and for some reason, Mom knew there was a chance that he had been shot. I still remember the call that came two days later. I was sitting on the sofa when the phone rang and my mother rushed to answer. She listened for a few moments, and started to cry. “He’s alive!” she yelled, “He’s alive.” She later said his air mattress had been shot out from under him. I pictured him lying on one of those colorful rafts swimmers used on Lake Erie, and thought Vietnam must be one crazy place.
More than 2 million Americans served in Vietnam. Ohio lost 3,094 of them. The rest of our boys came home, but the ship never righted. Guys I’d known my entire life weren’t fun, or funny, anymore. No more teasing, no big brother reprimands to get out of the street and quit picking on the little ones. Sometimes I’d look at my friends’ older brothers sitting on their front porches and their stares would scare me. I’d look in their eyes and get goose bumps. It was as if they thought I was trying to start a fight just by smiling at them. I’d scamper off, full of questions my father warned me never to ask.
By 1978, I was a college junior and a journalism major on the same college campus where Ohio National Guardsmen had opened fire at an anti-war protest in 1970, killing four students and wounding nine others. I spent most of my days at the student newspaper, The Daily Kent Stater, where a wall of windows overlooked Blanket Hill. Until I went to college, I thought everyone knew at least one person who’d fought in Vietnam. About six weeks into my freshman year, I stopped asking.
All this may explain why I was eager on that day in 1978 to read Herr’s ferocious account of his year in Vietnam, where he went (in le Carré’s phrase) “to the limit in order to make himself a part of the monstrosity he visited.” But I was scared, too. Not because I was a girl and we didn’t “do war.” No, I wanted to understand what had happened to the boys in my hometown, and why my childhood seemed so different from that of the kids who grew up in neighborhoods full of college deferments. Six pages in, I knew Herr had answers that would likely mess with my head for a long, long time.
It’s almost hard to remember the parched terrain of literature and movies about the Vietnam War when Dispatches was released in 1977. David Halberstam’s 1969 book, The Best and the Brightest, was a widely respected critique of the war, but he focused on the political and military decision-makers who led us into the quagmire. The only well-known movie about Vietnam was John Wayne’s The Green Berets, an anti-communist screed made in 1968, in large part because Wayne wanted to beef up lagging support for the war. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert denounced the film as “propaganda”:
[It] simply will not do as a film about the war in Vietnam. It is offensive not only to those who oppose American policy but even to those who support it. At this moment in our history, locked in the longest and one of the most controversial wars we have ever fought, what we certainly do not need is a movie depicting Vietnam in terms of cowboys and Indians. That is cruel and dishonest and unworthy of the thousands who have died there.
A string of compelling movies would come out a decade after Wayne’s, including Coming Home (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979), which Herr helped write. (In 1987, he would also contribute to the script of Full Metal Jacket.) But as far as popular culture goes, Vietnam was still, if not a blank canvas, a painting without form the year that Dispatches hit the shelves.
Critics immediately hailed it as the story of the real Vietnam War, the one told from the view of the grunts on the ground, rather than politicians or military commanders thousands of miles away. Hunter S. Thompson said that Herr “puts all the rest of us in the shade.” Novelist Robert Stone, reviewing Dexter Filkins’s 2008 book The Forever War in The New York Times Book Review, declared Herr’s book “the most brilliant exposition of the cultural dimension of an American war ever compiled.” John Leonard praised it in an idiom closer to the author’s: “It is as if Dante had gone to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocketful of pills: our first rock-and-roll war, stoned murder.”