New Journalism Goes To Vietnam

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Title: Dispatches

Rating: 4 Stars

New journalism is a style of reporting that came of age in the (of course!) 1960s. Journalism is traditionally the reporting of facts. There could certainly be opinion, or even bias, in journalism but the facts themselves are unquestionable.

As with many things in the 1960s, this somewhat restrictive definition of journalism was questioned. Instead of just dealing with facts, there was the thinking that journalism should be more concerned with truths. Facts themselves could be adjusted, shifted, and rearranged, if in so doing the journalist arrives at a destination that highlights a greater truth than the sum of the facts.

The term, at least as it compares to the current definition, came from Tom Wolfe. I believe that one of the first journalists to use this technique was Gay Talese, writing for Esquire magazine. One of the most famous examples of it is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. A more extreme example of it is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

It leads to kind of an interesting philosophical question. Is it fiction or non-fiction? The stories told are true. The characters are real. However, the quotes might not be. Even in some cases, the characters might actually be composites. In Cold Blood is usually filed under fiction, as is Thompson’s work. Herr is frank about the literary license that he took while writing Dispatches.

Interestingly enough, Rolling Stone sent Hunter S. Thompson to Saigon to cover its fall. Apparently, he kind of took a look around, said fuck this, and left.

Before that, in 1968, Esquire magazine sent Michael Herr to Vietnam to do feature reporting. He spent a year there. From that, we have Dispatches.

To a large extent, they do read like dispatches. 1968 was a critical year in Vietnam. He witnessed, and, at times, actively participated in: the Tet Offensive, the Battle of Hue, and the Battle (ie siege) of Khe Sanh, which were three of the key turning points of the war. He was up and close as possible to the battles. While there, he talks about his own fear and occasionally his own courage. He develops close relationships with the soldiers. They show themselves to him, in all of their fear, courage, insanity, exhaustion, cruelty, and loss.

At these battles, the absurd disconnect between what the generals are saying at briefings and what the soldiers are witnessing on the ground was a chasm too wide for our country to bridge. Journalists recently returned from the field openly scoffed at generals during their briefings.

Through all of this, the journalists, as well as the soldiers, self medicate themselves through alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and morphine. The drafted soldiers cannot even fathom journalists voluntarily exposing themselves to danger for very little pay. Even so, the soldiers are solicitous of the journalists and as much as they can, make sure that they are protected.

But the soldiers can only do so much. Among Herr’s closest friends are Dana Stone, Sean Flynn (yes, swashbuckling Errol Flynn’s son), and Tim Page. These three, especially Flynn, are tough, brave, and lucky journalists that even the soldiers respect.

Stone and Flynn take off on motorcycles to get closer to the front lines and are never seen again. It’s rumored that they were handed over to the Khmer Rouge and executed. Their bodies were never found. Tim Page, injured a couple of times in ever more serious fashion, finally gets a chunk of metal deeply embedded in his head. He lives and even kind of recovers but his war journalism days are over. He’s twenty-five.

Dispatches can only be described as quasi hallucinogenic field reporting. Given the time and the place, perhaps this is the only way that the ‘truth’ of the Vietnam War can be told.

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