There are many quotable nuggets from Dispatches. “Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it,” is an oft-quoted favorite. “There’s nothing so embarrassing as when things go wrong in a war,” is another. These one-liners are clever. They’re quoted because they’re short and snappy, but they don’t reflect why Dispatches changed the way we talked about Vietnam. For a better sense of the book’s impact, consider this passage on the many ways a man could die:
You could die in a sudden bloodburning crunch as your chopper hit the ground like dead weight, you could fly apart so that your pieces would never be gathered, you could take one neat round in the lung and go out hearing only the bubble of the last few breaths, you could die in the last stage of malaria with that faint tapping in your ears, and that could happen to you after months of firefights and rockets and machine guns. Enough, too many, were saved for that, and you always hoped that no irony would attend your passing. You could end in a pit somewhere with a spike through you, everything stopped forever except for the one or two motions, purely involuntary, as though you could kick it all away and come back. You could fall down dead so that the medics would have to spend half an hour looking for the hole that killed you, getting more and more spooked as the search went on. You could be shot, mined, grenaded, rocketed, mortared, sniped at, blown up and away so that your leavings had to be dropped into a sagging poncho and carried to Graves Registration, that’s all she wrote. It was almost marvelous.
Herr’s book was as unfiltered as a private journal, and as honest as a man on his deathbed. Sometimes he wrote in cool and measured prose, like a hip historian. Most of the time, he raced across the page like the men he described as “talking in short violent bursts as though they were afraid they might not get to finish.” Perhaps he was always like that; more likely, he eventually absorbed the grunts’ cadences as his own. Thirty years after reading the book for the first time, I still have the same gut response: at least I understand why I will never understand what happened to our boys in Vietnam. That may sound like small consolation to those who don’t remember the war, but the realization that some horrors are beyond my comprehension liberated me from a guilt I couldn’t name at twenty-one, and still struggle with now.
Back in 1978, I read Herr’s book in one sleepless night. I thought about it for a couple of days, read it again. Then I mailed my copy of Dispatches to my parents with a note pleading that they read it. Weeks passed, and I finally called. My mother said she couldn’t read it because it was making her cry too much. Dad wouldn’t even pick it up. To him, Dispatches was 260 pages of reasons why they’d sent me away to college. If we learned anything in our blue-collar town, in our factory worker’s family, it was that college kids were special, they were protected, they got away with things. Like war, for example.
Nearly 80 percent of those who fought in Vietnam came from rural and blue-collar families. My mother and father would end up dying in their sixties after working hard to make sure they changed the odds for their four kids. In 1978, I was only the first to go to college. Dad, who often worked double shifts at a power plant on Lake Erie, had no time to look back, and no interest in Michael Herr’s version of America.
I said earlier that I had to find my courage to read Dispatches back then. As it turned out, I needed to find a different kind of courage to reread it in 2010. I knew to brace for its relentless loop of gore and terror, but I didn’t remember many of the specifics, and this time they clawed at my heart, and my conscience. Fatally wounded boys cry for their mothers. A man wraps his wife’s oatmeal cookie in foil, plastic and three pairs of socks to keep it safe for months in the jungle.
And sometimes, numbers speak horrible truths. The National Archives rank Vietnam casualties by age. Of the dead, 9,705 were twenty-one; 14,095 were twenty; and 8,283 were nineteen.
Twelve of them were only seventeen.