Nowhere is such dislocation more vividly expressed than in Michael Herr's Dispatches, featured in its entirety as a coda to the collection. If the rest of Reporting Vietnamrepresents a steady accumulation of detail, Dispatches is its imaginative filter, the long-range lens through which everything begins to cohere. Dispatches is a signal work of Vietnam reportage, a brutal narrative merging journalism and commentary, history and memoir, which, on its publication in 1977, reconfigured war correspondence as a literary art. Herr is not after resolution, at least in a traditional sense. Rather, he takes Vietnam's incongruities and plays them off each other, as if the only meaning is that there is no meaning, just a series of surreal juxtapositions in which the sublime and the unbearable are inextricably linked. Herr addresses the contradictions faced by every correspondent, for whom Vietnam was "a war of our convenience, a horrible convenience, but ours. We could jump into jeeps and minimokes at nine or ten and drive a few kilometers to where the fighting was, run around in it for a few hours and come back." In contrast, the soldiers' lives are summed up by one grunt with Zen-like simplicity: "Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened." Hearing that, Herr makes the distance between his condition and theirs explicit. "I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story; when I asked him what had happened he just looked like he felt sorry for me, fucked if he'd waste time telling stories to anyone dumb as I was."
Herr's ability to balance these multiple, and often opposing, perspectives has a lot to tell us -- if only about the dissonant emotions that Vietnam still inspires. At the same time, it reiterates journalism's power not just to inform us but to impact our lives. It's been said that reporters helped turn the tide in Vietnam. Reading these volumes, we can see how true that is. Yet even more important is the fact that the writing stands as a miraculous, real-time journal of the Vietnam experience. "There were some who couldn't make it and left after a few days," writes Herr, "some who couldn't make it the other way, staying year after year, trying to piece together their very real hatred of the war with their great love for it, that rough reconciliation that many of us had to look at."
REPORTING VIETNAM Part One: AmericanJournalism 19591969| Library of America 858 pages | $35 hardcover
REPORTING VIETNAM Part Two: AmericanJournalism 19691975| Library of America 857 pages | $35 hardcover