The Rear-View Mirror: Dispatches (1977)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Michael Herr’s Dispatches is a slim book, but it’s so densely written that I couldn’t get through it in one day. It’s his own personal diary from the Vietnam war, condensed into such sparse prose that you will have to set it down eventually. Herr throws you into the the mess of war and explains only what is crucial for the rest of the text so that the reader is set to feel very much like a newly drafted soldier joining the conflict – you have basic training, but no clue about the area they drop you in. The reason for that immediacy might be that Herr is not really a novelist, but a journalist. He volunteered to go to Vietnam, joined the reserve there in 1967, returned to the US, had a nervous breakdown, couldn’t write anything for five years and finally published this book in 1977.

Dispatches manages to make the text feel permeable: the oppressive heat, the weird fellow soldiers and commanders, the unseen enemy are all there, just under the surface of the text. It’s an immediacy that only few writers can conjure up. Michael Herr not only collaborated on the screenplay for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), but also on Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). Neither movie is based explicitly on Dispatches, but it’s safe to assume that his experiences went into co-writing both screenplays. Willard’s monologue at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, for instance, is by Herr.

The text is dry, laconic, but completely free of irony. It’s one of the best examples of New Journalism, and even Hunter S. Thompson praised Herr’s writing. It’s strange that Dispatches isn’t better known, since the author had his hand in two of the most crucial war films. Most people know that Apocalypse Now is based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but they don’t seem to know that this slim book even exists.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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