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Illustrating War Horrors and Experiences in Michael Herr’s Dispatches

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High On War

In his journalism book Dispatches, Michael Herr develops his coverage of the war by writing in a discontinuous manner to reflect how he experienced it, employing his perspectives through dreams, drugs, and war scenes. Each are filled with their own torment but all correlate with each other and ultimately reflect Herr’s experience in Vietnam and the writing style of the piece. Despite the lack of continuity, the piece goes through the development of Herr’s own character by creating a collective story of the war told from his raw observations and experiences as well as from the soldiers he encounters.

Michael Herr consistently writes in a discontinuous manner because it reflects how he experiences the war and other events in Vietnam, a primary reason being his use of drugs, which impacted his thinking, his memory, and his sleep patterns. Primarily, Herr was smoking cannabis, perhaps as a way to aid his sleep (which cannabis is proven to help) and/or also to take his mind away from the day’s memories of gruesome and haunting events. Herr mentions how he’d go to sleep stoned every night in Saigon, forgetting memories and dreams upon waking with only the sour taste in his mouth to indicate a bad dream (33). In this manner, he survives the confusion generated by his daytime observations of the war. Yet, he mentions how many times he’d get high immediately upon waking, making it clear to the reader that Herr was under the influence much of the time. This altered state in waking consciousness contributes to the writing’s overall sense of patchy memories and confusion, which Herr himself is going through. The drug influence on the physical body produces an effect of hyper-stimulation and creates an atmosphere of strangeness and unpredictability, much like the writing, which comes in and out with different snapshots of his experiences in Vietnam, giving us the sense that the drug experience is very influential towards his writing.

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Herr discusses the idea of dreams v. waking and the impact of the two on his experience, sometimes the two seemingly becoming one until he couldn’t tell which was real or not, and this is reflected in his writing. In many scenes we find Herr beginning a section with no continuity from the previous section, giving the illusion of past scenes as hazy, dream-like occurrences. At one point during the Tet Offensive and its chaotic action, Herr along with some Marines is brought out of the war zone by a chopper and ends up in an air-conditioned diner, which struck Herr as impossible to have happened all in the same afternoon. Despite its shock, Herr is set to go out again the next morning, so he smokes a joint and “shudders” off into sleep. (80) This correlates to the same thing he was doing before Tet, entering dreams in an altered state, leaving him to forget his dreams upon waking. He mentions the dreams he’d forget in Vietnam, bad memories of the war buried deep in his subconscious, which he assumed were completely forgotten. As cannabis is also a memory-impairing drug, it was easy to think the memories had vanished, but really, he says, they emerged years later in the form of dreams, like he said they would for many soldiers. And he did forget about many things, he admits, but the memories would return in the form of nightmares being pushed out of the subconscious after having been (presumably) buried deep by a brain that would use any coping mechanism to cushion the weight or blow of the actual memories. However, these were mostly explored during his time in Saigon, but since dreaming and sleeping are an inescapable part of everyday life, even in war, Herr discusses some of the moments out in a war zone and his and soldier’s relationship with sleep, in some instances sleep being a matter of life and death. However, he writes, sometimes the weariness would conquer someone so much that they’d sleep as soundly as in childhood, which left many to never wake up from this deep slumber. (53) In this way, Herr contrasts the conscious/subconscious state with life/death, making us wonder which is even preferable in a chaotic state of war.

Michael Herr employs the dreamy and drugged up state of his experience when writing about his war observations, which are written in a discontinuous style. Most of the action Herr (and really most soldiers) was taken to was by chopper, and so we get paragraphs and sections of the book that begin with Herr exiting or entering a chopper, which is in effect bringing him in and out of the action, just as he was coming in and out of consciousness when stoned, asleep, or fearful and tired in a war zone. Herr even adds dream imagery to describe the ever present choppers, which “fell out of the sky like fat poisoned birds a hundred times a day.” (14) This imagery correlates with the half awake/half asleep feel of the piece, which adds to its sense of discontinuity. The dream imagery continues in correlation with the choppers because of the in-and-out feel they bring to Herr’s writing. The action was much the same, and Herr lets us experience this by employing lack of continuity and presenting snapshots of stories, coming in and out, one after the other, without allowing the reader to know what happens to this soldier next or what happens after that incident. The pieces are literally patches of memories, which are short and hazy and may even beget an atmosphere of strangeness, much like in dreams. There are especially the descriptions of men who say and act in a manner that is completely outside of seeming sane, but Herr as a journalist writes as if he clearly dismisses it by by moving on to another subject, which leaves like a big imprint of the event fresh in your mind. For example, there was the snapshot of the grunt who tells Herr about a Vietnamese the soldiers were getting ready to skin, (66) an obviously gruesome idea that Herr drops on the reader for a short while and moves on from quite soon. The story has been planted into the reader’s memory stream like a flash, and leaves us with an ambiguity as the what happened next. This lack of continuity adds to the drugged up feel of the piece inspired by the author’s illicit drug usage but also by the abnormal events of the war. Much like dreams and drug trips, the war contains sensations of a hyper-stimulated and odd ambience. These are occurrences that have a vibe indicating something definitely out of the ordinary, which even the dumb grunts feel…but they occur anyway, and no one seems to question them, no matter how gruesome and insane they are. But the truth aches to emerge, and it does, in the form of dreams sometimes, as Herr says. And perhaps this emergence of nightmarish memories in Herr’s active subconscious (dreaming) is what inspired him to dedicate an entire book to these memories. Much like the drugs, which also produce a hazy and patchy set of memories. They put you on a sort of dream state where things may seem a little out of the ordinary, and either you feel in tune with it or you completely freak out. In this way, Herr ties together with his war experience the drug experience, the dreams, and his style of writing.

One of the beautiful things about this piece is how Herr makes makes dreams, drugs, and war all come to life in his writing, truly making worlds collide. This is because the truth for Herr is that all those things could not be separated, for it was how he experienced the war; it’s how these things took Herr’s emotions on a thrill ride. It wasn’t just the war but the drugs and the dream feel, which really all became one for the writer.

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