As I read Dispatches by Michael Herr, there is an overwhelming sense of fear and horror. His dispatches are populated by soldiers called 'grunts', whose enemy was everywhere and nowhere. Their maps were blank; their names for the enemy, 'Charlie' or 'VC', told them nothing. How do you recognize them? They all wear black pajamas; they are all alien to us. They are everywhere. That's where the paranoia began. Herr's dispatches are disturbing because he writes from inside the nightmare, with all the tension and terror that turned these young men into killing machines. It is all the more frightening because, emptied of any concerns for justice, or ethics, or solidarity, they opened fire anywhere, everywhere. After all, who could know where or who the enemy was?
Herr's use of brutal imagery absorbed me into his savage surroundings. From the soldier who can't stop drooling as a result of a particularly dreadful gun battle, to the scenes of the dead, American and Vietnamese, adult and infant, on battlefields and village streets.
The characters are real people in a situation that most of them neither like nor understand. They are young men who invoke the same shortcomings we all have. They are professional soldiers and act that way despite their misgivings. They push past the boundaries of fear and into the realms of heroism or insanity or death. Everyone that he introduces is individual. There are no carbon copy soldiers here. They are funny or musical or religious or delusional. I felt as though I was being introduced to people I knew throughout the book.
From time off in Saigon and Hong Kong to his time spent in a bunker during the siege of Khe Sanh, Herr covers every aspect of the war. He shows how so...