Michael Herr, who authored Dispatches, is mentioned in The Cat from Huế which I reviewed in this blog a few weeks ago. Herr was a journalist who volunteered to go to Vietnam to cover the war. He effectively volunteered every time he got in a helicopter and was taken to a landing zone, as he could have turned around and walked away. To repeatedly put your life under threat when you don’t have to is a very strange thing to do. The ‘grunts’ knew this, and frequently asked Herr what he was doing in Vietnam. It was a question he found difficult to answer.
Herr writes in a unique style about the Vietnam War. It’s almost gonzo journalism, like that of Hunter S. Thompson. You can read many of the sentences once and they seem to make sense, but if you read them again, the flow of words is harder to comprehend. But parts are similar to how some in the military spoke in Vietnam, at that time. This is how he makes things authentic, and is part of the appeal of the book.
Herr, like John Laurence (author of The Cat from Huế) knew Sean Flynn, the son of Errol Flynn, who was a photojournalist in Vietnam. I believe that Herr, like Flynn, was one of the better correspondents. There were plenty of others who barely left the briefing rooms, or who simply repeated verbatim the military briefings in their reports. Herr, Burrows, Laurence, Keith Kay, Greenway and a few others ‘walked the walk’ (to quote that chap in Full Metal Jacket) and tried to report accurately what they saw. Sometimes they were hated by the grunts, and they all heard from officers words to the effect of ‘My Marines are winning this war, and you people are losing it for us in your papers’ (the war became very unpopular at home in the US). The correspondents saw that it was a pointless war, where the victims were too often civilians with no particular affiliation to either South Vietnam or North Vietnam, so how do you accurately report on that situation? What will the colleagues of a dead Marine in a body bag think of the photographer who takes a photo of the bag?
The western music played by correspondents and grunts was very distinct, and included songs by Creedence, Hendrix, Wilson Pickett, the Doors and the Grateful Dead.
All concerned had a macabre sense of what was going on in Vietnam, and this comes across well in Herr’s book.