May 23, 2012

Book: Dispatches By Michael Herr

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 4:51 pm

This is a brutally honest book. It has no story to speak of, and reads like a documentary in book form. And yet, at least in the first twenty pages, it is absolutely fascinating and really holds your interest.

If you want to know what it was like to be a part of the American forces in the crazy war in Vietnam, you cannot do better than read this book. It is the experiences of a reported who is with the forces (The reporters being `embedded’ with the troops, if you care for a modern terminology). The descriptions are raw, and shocking. Young men who go there not knowing what to expect and living through the sheer terror and madness of fighting in the alien country against an enemy they can neither isolate nor understand, who keeps coming in waves, stealthily at night, or ambushing by day, even after suffering very heavy casualties due to the superior firepower of the US. The terror that stops you from even sleeping at night properly and makes some people go to sleep out of sheer exhaustion, standing up, with their eyes open…

The descriptions are haunting – for instance, the war being so raw that young people age within hours. “What do you say when a nineteen year old Marine looks at you and says, `I am too old for this shit, man’ ?”.

The disbelief in some soldier’s voice when they learn that the reporters did not have to be there, like themselves but volunteered to be  there… The unreasonable anger against the press for reporting that the war may not be going well..

The story is also told in an unvarnished, stark manner. If you don’t have the stomach for really strong descriptions or very strong language full of expletives, you should give this book a miss. It is filled to the brim with both.

For instance, a soldier being fatally wounded by ground fire while sitting right in front of the reporters who are all traveling in an army helicopter is graphically told. The constant ride in the helicopters or ground vehicles with the rest of the vehicle loaded full with US soldiers’ corpses shocks you and stays with you for a while after you have finished reading the book.

A few reporters – Dana the Intrepid, Sean Flynn, Errol Flynn’s son who is trying to live down his reflected celebrity status, Davies, who `marries’ a wife and lives with the whole family of his wife freeloading off him in a rented house out ther – are all characters that stand out.

More gruesome tales abound; for instance a soldier who is building a brand new `gook‘ out of various body parts from various Viet Cong soldiers who died in the battle.

The attack on Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive are described. The official view of the war being about to be won imminently despite the reality on the ground is well told. Some near brushes with death are described well – the narrator walking down a lonely path only to find that he had somehow avoided twenty one landmines left right in the path by others that he was not aware of!

There is no story to tell in the conventional sense – it is a raw, brutal, honest description of the soldiers who hate the war they are in but can see no way out, of reporters crazy enough to volunteer for the work, of deep friendships and several acts of kindness done to each other, of brutality beyond description in the name of war –  of such things.

If you are upset about the current wars already, this will tell you why you are. If you are not, it will offer you a  perspective on why wars cause misery all aroung.
A good read, if you have the stomach for it.

I would give it a 7 / 10

— Krishna


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