Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dispatches

"Memory print, voices and faces, stories like filament through a piece of time, so attached to the experience that nothing moved and nothing went away."
I've just finished teaching Michael Herr's Dispatches (1977) in my Literary Journalism course.  Herr co-wrote the screenplay for "Full Metal Jacket" and was a contributing writer for "Apocalypse Now."

Dispatches is a memoir of his experiences covering the war in Vietnam as a correspondent for Esquire.  It was published ten years after his return from Vietnam.

As Herr says, "I went to cover the war and the war covered me...I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn't know, it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did" (20)

There are a few non-fiction books that I think everyone on the planet should read.  John Hersey's Hiroshima is one and Michael Herr's Dispatches is another.

I'm not a huge fan of war books or movies--I tend to steer away from both, actually, maybe because I also think that you are as responsible for everything you see (or read) as you are for everything you do. 

At times, that thought is incredibly overwhelming.

Herr's account is different, in part because it does a lot of interesting things with narrative and language as part of its attempt to convey a sense of what exactly The Vietnam War was and what it meant to experience it firsthand.  This is one of the things I focus on in my course: the use of "literary" strategies in non-fiction and the concomitant ethical, moral and political issues that arise as a result.

As a writer who wrote about Vietnam, Herr is careful to distinguish his role from that of the soliders who fought in Vietnam, even though they obviously shared experiences.  His role as a correspondent puts him in an awkward and, in many ways, untenable position--untenable because of the enormous responsibility it places on his capacity to translate what he has seen into words.
And always, they would ask you with an emotion whose intensity would shock you to please tell it, because they really did have the feeling that it wasn't being told for them, that they were going through all of this and that somehow no one back in the World knew about it. ... There was a Marine in Hue who had come after me as I walked toward the truck that would take me to the airstrip... when he caught up with me he grabbed my sleeve so violently that I thought he was going to accuse me or, worse, try to stop me from going.  His face was all but blank with exhaustion, but he had enough feeling left to say, "Okay, man, you go on, you go on out of here you cocksucker, but I mean it, you tell it!  You tell it, man.  If you don't tell it...". (206-207)
"If you don't tell it...". It's hard to know how that statement would conclude, whether as a threat or a plea.

If you don't tell it, I'll kick your ass.  If you don't tell it, no one will. 

You have to tell it.  And then we have to read it.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."