Contributing Editor: Raymund Paredes
Classroom Issues and Strategies
It's probably necessary and certainly a good idea to provide some sort
of historical context for the consideration of Herr's work. This can be
done by assigning supplementary reading or lecturing on the history of
the Vietnam War. As a Vietnam War veteran myself, I relate my own personal
experiences of the war to students to compare with Herr's. If you, or any
older students, have direct experience with the Vietnam era, this is a
useful approach. There are many good films about Vietnam (both feature
and documentary) that could complement Herr's book.
Students respond very strongly to the graphic depiction of the inhumanity
and insanity of the war. They want to know more about the causes of the
Vietnam War and the political climate of the United States at the time.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The major themes in the excerpted passage are: the dehumanizing and
brutalizing influences of war, particularly the way war renders soldiers
incapable of functioning in "normal" social circumstances; the
relationship between the writer's style and presentation of the war and
the drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s; and the author's view that the
war was fundamentally immoral, even more so than other wars. Key here is
Herr's use of the Spanish phrase "la vida loca" (the crazy life).
On a personal level, Herr emphasizes his troubling, even macabre, attraction
to the war, its combination of bloodshed, madness, camaraderie, and heroism.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Dispatches is an extraordinary work stylistically, a brilliant
execution of the speaking styles of young American soldiers: fast paced,
full of slang, very much shaped by popular culture (films, television,
rock and roll music) and the drug culture. Herr is also adept at capturing
the officialese of the U.S. military establishment. Many of the formal
and stylistic qualities of Dispatches connect Herr to postmodernism.
Dispatches is a very contemporary book in terms of its values
andits point of view. It is a book about young men written by a young man.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Herr's work can be compared to that of other writers about the Vietnam
War and with the so-called "new journalists" such as Tom Wolfe.
The second connection is especially interesting. Students might note how
Herr uses literary/fictional techniques--figurative language, characterization,
narrative development-- in what is ostensibly, as indicated by the title,
a work of journalism. Students might look at other treatments of the Vietnam
War--both fictional and journalistic--to compare points of view about the
war, its impact on the humanity of the soldiers, etc.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. What is the author's attitude toward the war? What are the effects
of the war on human behavior? From your knowledge, is Herr's position on
the war widely shared?
2. How would you describe Herr's style? In what ways is Herr's style
compatible (or not) with its subject? From what sources does Herr draw
his images, his metaphors? How does this compare with the practices of
other writers? In what sense is the notion of "la vida loca"
symbolic of both the literary situation and the temper of the times?
Other books on Vietnam are very useful. I recommend: Stanley Karnow's
Vietnam, Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, Wallace Terry's
Bloods, and Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War.