Pros: The Vietnam War the way the grunts wanted it told
Cons: Some derogatory terms that were acceptable back in the day
Hell Sucks. A kid had written that simple, all-encompassing statement on his helmet. Guys in Vietnam wrote lots of things on their helmets and flak jackets. Some were attempts at maintaining individualism, others a creative middle finger aimed at the all-too-real psychedelic mind-f*ck of the Vietnam War. It was a small attempt at coping with a 24/7, 365 non-stop, eyes-open nightmare.
Esquire magazine correspondent Michael Herr spent a year in Vietnam, arriving shortly before the Tet Offensive. Unhindered by pesky deadlines, Herr was free to move nomadically throughout the war, hanging out in an area as long as he felt the need. Dispatches is Herr's personal journal of his experiences. Full of fear, horror, thrills, and dark, ironic humor, full of men forced into a place where everyone thought everyone else was crazy, Dispatches is a fascinating Vietnam War read.
Whether it's a horrifying ride in a helicopter full of dead bodies or a story about a kid who couldn't understand why his girl back home stopped writing him after sending her the ear of a dead North Vietnamese soldier, Herr places the reader squarely into the thick of the war. This is not the story the High Command wanted written, full of skewed body counts and rah-rah propaganda. This is the story the grunts in the jungle wanted written - the war as it really happened.
Dispatches is the battle for the city of Hue, where Herr spent days in the middle of fire fights as the Marines attempted to take the city's Citadel, suffering a casualty for every meter of wall gained. It's the siege of Khe Sanh, where Herr hung out with the grunts, where he met a couple of jiving Marines named Day Tripper and Mayhew. Mayhew was Crazy and slept in the nude, even while under siege. Day Tripper was afraid of the nighttime - so afraid that he would volunteer for the worst day patrols just to avoid night duty. The material supplied by Mayhew and Day Tripper was worth gold to Herr, more valuable than a hundred Press Corps briefings from the rear.
The Vietnam witnessed by Herr was full of troops succumbing to the craziness - sometimes they'd hit their limit and do something equally crazy, such as booby-trap their own latrine. It was bored grunts, purposely wandering into clearings, hoping to draw enemy fire for entertainment purposes. It was gung-ho commanders, eager to plan a spectacular, spontaneous operation as soon as they realized a correspondent was in their midst. But mostly, it was a bunch of scared guys who just wanted to be somewhere - anywhere - else.
Michael Herr later drew upon his Vietnam experience to co-write the screenplays for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. If you enjoyed those movies, you're likely to enjoy this book - it reads very much like a real-life part of those flicks. Much like the Vietnam that Herr witness, Dispatches is brutal, graphic, and even beautiful. It's one book I feel very lucky to have read. For history/war buffs, this one is definitely a must read.