Michael Herr (b. 1940)
Contributing Editor: Raymund Paredes
Classroom Issues and Strategies
It's probably necessary and certainly a good idea to provide some sort of historical context for the consideration of Herr's work. This can be done by assigning supplementary reading or lecturing on the history of the Vietnam War. As a Vietnam War veteran myself, I relate my own personal experiences of the war to students to compare with Herr's. If you, or any older students, have direct experience with the Vietnam era, this is a useful approach. There are many good films about Vietnam (both feature and documentary) that could complement Herr's book.
Students respond very strongly to the graphic depiction of the inhumanity and insanity of the war. They want to know more about the causes of the Vietnam War and the political climate of the United States at the time.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The major themes in the excerpted passage are: the dehumanizing and brutalizing influences of war, particularly the way war renders soldiers incapable of functioning in "normal" social circumstances; the relationship between the writer's style and presentation of the war and the drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s; and the author's view that the war was fundamentally immoral, even more so than other wars. Key here is Herr's use of the Spanish phrase "la vida loca" (the crazy life). On a personal level, Herr emphasizes his troubling, even macabre, attraction to the war, its combination of bloodshed, madness, camaraderie, and heroism.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Dispatches is an extraordinary work stylistically, a brilliant execution of the speaking styles of young American soldiers: fast paced, full of slang, very much shaped by popular culture (films, television, rock and roll music) and the drug culture. Herr is also adept at capturing the officialese of the U.S. military establishment. Many of the formal and stylistic qualities of Dispatches connect Herr to postmodernism.
Dispatches is a very contemporary book in terms of its values andits point of view. It is a book about young men written by a young man.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Herr's work can be compared to that of other writers about the Vietnam War and with the so-called "new journalists" such as Tom Wolfe. The second connection is especially interesting. Students might note how Herr uses literary/fictional techniques--figurative language, characterization, narrative development-- in what is ostensibly, as indicated by the title, a work of journalism. Students might look at other treatments of the Vietnam War--both fictional and journalistic--to compare points of view about the war, its impact on the humanity of the soldiers, etc.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. What is the author's attitude toward the war? What are the effects of the war on human behavior? From your knowledge, is Herr's position on the war widely shared?
2. How would you describe Herr's style? In what ways is Herr's style compatible (or not) with its subject? From what sources does Herr draw his images, his metaphors? How does this compare with the practices of other writers? In what sense is the notion of "la vida loca" symbolic of both the literary situation and the temper of the times?
Other books on Vietnam are very useful. I recommend: Stanley Karnow's Vietnam, Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, Wallace Terry's Bloods, and Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War.