Dispatches Summary and Study Guide

Michael Herr

Dispatches

  • 46-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 13 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with an MFA in Creative Writing
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Dispatches Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 46-page guide for “Dispatches” by Michael Herr includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 13 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Existentialism Versus Determinism and New Journalism.

Plot Summary

First published in 1977, Dispatches is Michael Herr’s account of his time spent as a war correspondent in Vietnam.

The conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia started on November 1, 1955. President Kennedy escalated U.S. involvement in 1961, followed by President Johnson, who committed even more resources and men in 1963. 58,220 U.S. soldiers and approximately 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers lost their lives during the conflict. Michael Herr was a correspondent for Esquire Magazine, covering the war from late 1967 to early 1969. 1968 was the deadliest year of the conflict, with almost 17,000 U.S. troops killed in action.

Although presented as a memoir when published in the United States in 1977, in France,Dispatches was published as a novel. Dispatches has been described as New Journalism, a style of journalism that was developed in the 1960s and ‘70s, and which incorporates literary techniques and an emphasis on “truth” over “facts.” In a 1990 interview with Paul Ciotti in the Los Angeles Times, Herr said that two of the characters that figure strongly in the narrative, Day Tripper and Mayhew, are totally fictional characters, and that much of Dispatches is indeed fictional.

The story is told in a nonlinear fashion, with memories grouped by theme rather than chronology. What is striking about Dispatches is how Herr is able to simulate the disorienting feeling of being dropped into the war by his use of language. Terminology is never explained, and Herr does not go through the process of orienting his readers by providing a history of the war, or providing a backstory of the characters. The reader has to learn on the run, just like those who went to Vietnam were dropped into the middle of something that only time and experience could orient them to.

Much of the book is impressions and descriptions of interactions that Herr, the narrator, has with various combat troops, military officers, and other war correspondents. Herr careens from moment to moment, rarely giving the reader an opportunity to catch his or her breath. His writing style is a way for Herr to approximate his experience of being in Vietnam,one that gives a feeling of constantly moving, and always having limited control over one’s situation and surroundings. There is also a disjointed manner to the writing that reflects the rampant drug use by the combat troops and war correspondents. It gives the whole piece a fractured feeling, where time gets stretched or condensed depending on the mind frame of the narrator.

The main mystery of the narrative is what compels Herr to cover the war in Vietnam in the first place. It is a question that never gets answered, either in Dispatches or in subsequent interviews with Herr.

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