Front Lines

Dispatches BY Michael Herr. Vintage. Paperback, 272 pages. $15.

The cover of Dispatches

IN DISPATCHES (1977), Michael Herr’s seminal Vietnam memoir, the author remembers being a kid and poring over war photographs in Life magazine, “the ones that showed dead people or a lot of dead people.” The corpses, he recalls, were all smashed together, often in positions of strange intimacy, as if holding or stroking each other. He stared at the photographs for hours, but nothing in him changed—his experience of looking did not change. “I still wouldn’t have accepted the connection between a detached leg and the rest of a body,” he writes. The photograph concealed “essential information” about the dead, and became an obstacle to understanding rather than a vehicle of it: “Even when the picture was sharp and cleanly defined, something wasn’t clear at all. . . . I didn’t have a language for it then, but I remember now the shame I felt, like looking at first porn, all the porn in the world.”

Herr figured that if he encountered these corpses in the flesh, maybe then he would finally know them as intimately as they seemed to know each other. He tried to do that in Vietnam, when he traveled there in 1967 to cover the war for Esquire. But, as he explains in Dispatches, firsthand experience didn’t necessarily bring him into direct contact with the war. “You tended to manufacture [a defense] anyway because of how often and how badly you needed protection from what you were seeing.” Now the corpses were real, and still they didn’t feel real: “It was right there all around me and I didn’t even know it.”

Photographs, like narratives, are haunted by the world that exists outside their frames. Herr’s inability as a child to look away from the photographs in Life magazine may have owed less to the horror of the corpses than to the frame’s insistent reminder of the immensity of the world around them. Herr’s book haunts the reader in the same way. His time in Vietnam fails him—even a firsthand report, the ideal he originally pursues, turns out to be a form of fiction—but it doesn’t fail us. Instead of imposing a neat narrative on what he sees, Herr reenacts the experience of seeing, in all its partialness and insufficiency. His self-consciousness gives the impressionistic, atmospheric Dispatches its authenticity.“Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam,” the book ends. “We’ve all been there.” We all haven’t been there, he means.