There’s a footnote to Michael Herr’s story, and it’s a big one. As a journalist, I was taken aback to discover that, while Dispatches was published as nonfiction, Herr always thought of it as a novel. “I don’t think that it’s any secret that there is talk in the book that’s invented,” he told Schroeder. “But it is invented out of that voice that I heard so often and that made such penetration into my head. . . . I don’t really want to go into that no-man’s-land about what really happened and what didn’t really happen and where you draw the line. Everything in Dispatches happened for me, even if it didn’t necessarily happen to me.” Later, he adds:
There are errors of fact in the book. I’m not happy about this. When the Khe Sahn piece was published [as an essay before the book], I had a really beautiful letter from a colonel who had been stationed there; he corrected me on various points of fact. I lost the letter, and it didn’t turn up again until after the book was in print. . . . I couldn’t bear to go in and make the revisions myself. I was tapped out. I was exhausted from the project. Including the year in the war, I had spent eight years working on it, and I just couldn’t do any more.
It’s doubtful that Herr could have pulled this off in our current climate of online fact-checkers and self-anointed “citizen journalists.” It is too easy to imagine Sergeant So-and-So from Cleveland, Mississippi, yelling on fox News, “I was on the Langvei attack, and Mr. Herr is lying!” Or an anonymous blogger posting “Top Ten Reasons Michael Herr is a Traitor,” followed by 413 comments, 390 of them irrelevant to the post at hand.
I wonder if the critics would have been harsher to Herr had they known of his errors and inventions before writing their reviews. Even if we read it as fiction, Dispatches is a work of enormous power, but would its sense of urgency and loss be diminished?
Not for me. I have never had the guts to cover a war, and doubt I could ever risk my safety, and my sanity, as Herr did when he was in Vietnam. I have neither the right nor the will to pass judgment on how he brought home the war to millions of Americans who had yet to face it. And ultimately, whatever its flaws may be as straight journalism, his book is a tribute to the young men he met in Vietnam. In the 2001 documentary, First Kill, it’s clear that Herr was unable to forget them: “It’s their voices. It’s their amazing eloquence. My book is full of them. You know, that’s really what my book is. These guys were semi-demi-literate kids from a really unfavorable social background, who just had such a dignity. I couldn’t help but find that really moving, and really persuasive.”
Michael Herr was changed by what he saw, and what he endured. I am grateful that he lived to tell the tale, that he survived to write simple descriptions like this one: “He was the kind of kid that would go into the high-school gym alone and shoot baskets for the half-hour before the basketball team took it over for practice, not good enough yet for the team but determined.”
Sounds like half the boys I knew.
Until they went to Vietnam.