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.”
Herr, who never trained as a journalist, originally went to Vietnam for Esquire, but wrote only one story for the magazine during his time there. In his book, he vacillates between scared-out-of-his-bones humility and the occasional, arrogant conviction that, unlike some of the pretty-boy journalists, he was there for the right reasons.
“I could skip the daily briefings,” he recalls. Then he continues: “I honestly wanted to know what the form was for those interviews, but some of the reporters I’d ask would get very officious, saying something about ‘Command postures,’ and look at me as if I was insane. It was probably the kind of look that I gave one of them when he asked me once what I found to talk about with the grunts all the time, expecting me to confide (I think) that I found them as boring as he did.”
Other times, Herr sounds far less confident.
“There wasn’t a day when someone didn’t ask me what I was doing there,” he writes. What got him to Vietnam in the first place, he insists, was “the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn’t know, it took the war to teach it, that you were responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.”
It took about six years for Herr to write his book. He was candid about the reasons why in a 1992 interview with Eric James Schroeder in his book Vietnam, We’ve All Been There: Interviews with American Writers. (Schroeder lifted the first part of his title from the last line in Dispatches.)