Dispatches (1977) by Michael Herr
I am a big fan of historical non-fiction and in particular military history. The Vietnam war went on for 16 years and remains a large part of the American consciousness. We are still perhaps to too close to it for there to have been definitive histories written. There are, however, a number of well regarded memoirs including The Things They Carried and If I Die in a Combat Zone : Box Me Up and Ship Me Home by Tim O'Brien. Others include A Rumor Of War by Philip Caputo and To What End by Ward Just.
Some of the best of these are memoirs by journalists who covered the war and spent substantial amounts of time there. Michael Herr was a writer for Esquire magazine and the book covers his time there from 1967-1969. Journalism in Vietnam was much different than we see now in the Iraq war. Accredited reporters could move around fairly freely and speak with whomever they liked. Herr points out that the vast majority of the thousands of writers over there were content to stay in the rear camps and just eat up the daily reports given out by the military. He feels that there were perhaps 50 writers and photographers who got right in the shit and could actually give a view into what was going on.
Dispatches is structured as a series of vignettes obviously similar to the pieces he was sending back home. He describes the boredom and fear of being in Saigon as the VC surrounded the city - drinking and smoking joints with his colleagues whilst trying to avoid mortars. Hitching rides to and from the front on helicopters filled with the wounded and dead. The terror of being stuck in Khe Sanh which was attacked for 77 days straight.
Herr writes in a style that reflects the 60's which occasionally seems dated but overall the descriptions are vivid and you actually get a sense of what it might have been like to be there.
“’Quakin’ and shakin’,’ they called it, great balls of fire. Contact. Then it was you and the ground: kiss it, eat it, fuck it, plough it with your whole body, get as close to it as you can without being in it or of it, guess who’s flying around an inch above your head? Pucker and submit, it’s the ground. Contact.”