Fear as a theme throughout "Dispatches" by Michael Herr
In the book Dispatches, Michael Herr attempts to present the Vietnam War as it was. To do this Herr uses a disjointed, confused writing style and recounts stories that portray the life that those caught up in the conflict in Vietnam lived. One of the feelings he tries to impress on the reader is the fear that was so prevalent in Vietnam. The fear that hung in the air and ruled the darkness. Nearly every soldier that has ever seen combat has felt fear. Those who fought in Vietnam were no exception. In fact the Vietnam war was more horrible than all America’s other wars combined.
Early on in the book we see an example of fear. Herr has only recently arrived in country and has joined up with a unit in Danang. He is uncomfortable with his surroundings. When he tries to go outside of the relative safety of the camp the chain of command tells him not to go and that basically he is a fool for wanting to go. Although it is Herr’s journalistic instincts that make him want to go out, he is nervous. He is "freshmeat" but he knows the great dangers that were all about and he feared them. His fear was in some ways due to his lack of experience with combat. But even the seasoned Marine’s around him were not immune to fear. During basic training enlisted Marines are severely broken down, more so than in any other branch. They are than built back up into highly disciplined soldiers, who are quick to follow orders. Courage is greatly valued in the Marine Corps, and the Marines around Herr possessed it. But they were human and a natural and inseparable part of being human is feeling fear. In one scene on page 27 where the author is describing snatches of overheard conversations, a soldier is going on in an excited manner about how scared he was at a certain engagement. The Marine he is talking to responds with indifference. He is not surprised at the other soldier’s fear nor does he look down on him for it. Fear is no big deal to him. Sometimes fear was healthy. In the same scene, a Marine tells Herr about a Lieutenant that had ordered him to make a foolish recon run up a hill. The Marine refused and the Lieutenant went himself and was killed.
Although, as I stated above, fear is natural to all humans, the hell of the wartime jungles of Vietnam were dehumanizing. On page 66 Herr says that given the circumstances, feeling afraid was a privilege. He goes on to say that one must learn about fear. The way it existed there was not easily understood. He also says that it was hard to know what you really learned about courage. It too was hard to comprehend. When does the fine line between bravery and cowardice end? Did the correspondents who left after venturing into the field once or twice actually have more guts than the ones who stayed? Herr seemed to think they might. He knew that men will go through much to prove that they are not cowards. The ones who left were able to face the repercussions of their actions, which could be viewed as cowardly, and left the insanity behind. Herr states that they might be the sanest ones of all, indicating that he may have come to think that his being in a war zone voluntarily was foolish. He did not admit this however, until his tour was almost completed.
There is another form of fear that can be found within the pages of Dispatches. It is called panic. According to the author, often the only thing that kept them from lapsing into this dreadful kind of fear, was a lack of energy. But one February morning, while in Khe Sanh, they found the energy. During the previous night something that had never happened before happened. It was something they all knew couldn’t happen and yet it happened anyway. Special Forces Camp A, only five kilometers from the Khe Sahn Base Camp, had been taken by the North Vietnamese. Most of the 424 men who had manned Camp A (Langvei) were killed and the rest scattered. A panic wave was sent through the Americans at Khe Sahn not because a seemingly impregnable base had been taken, but because Charlie had used tanks in his assault. The backward, inferior, under equipped Gooks with their simple mortars, AK-47's and bamboo spikes had tanks! How many did they have? What else did they have? The psychological effect of the news of the fall of Langvei was large scale. It seemed to have affected everyone at Khe Sahn. As Herr says on page 111, the news was too terrible for the usual bitter, survivor’s smile, which was the standard reaction to news of disaster. The fall of Langvei challenged the notions the GI’s had about their enemy. Their strong loathing of the VC fighters led the Americans to think of them as animals. Now the animals had possession of modern machinery and knew how to operate it. Hatred and humiliation as well as the strategic loss of Langvei fed the panic.
As shown in the book, people had differing reactions to their own fear. On page 125 we see a scene involving Day Tripper, and Mayhew. They along with Herr got into a trench after an artillery barrage had begun suddenly. Day Tripper loudly professes his fear and accuses the calmer acting Mayhew of being just as scared as he is. Mayhew emphatically denies that he is scared. They are typical of other characters in the book. Some were open about their fear, others maintained a brave front. Others sought comfort in the Bible, like the overweight Marine, who sat next to Herr on the Chinook run from Cam Lo to Dong Ha, and shared Psalms 91:5 with Him. "Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flies by day..."
The fear of mutilation was a very real and prevalent fear. Kerr felt this fear early on when a mortar bomb landed nearby, spreading shrapnel. He and the Marine he was with were thrown to the ground. Herr caught a boot to the face, but did not realize it. For several dreadful moments he thought his face had been torn apart by shrapnel. After realizing his eyes were still where they should be, he then thinks that his nose has been blown off (which would have made it rather difficult for him to wear his glasses). The Marine knew the whole time that he had kicked Herr and he too was pale and scared as he thought he had seriously injured Herr. According to the book, on page 133, anxiety was a luxury you didn’t have time for once you knew all the ways one could die or be mutilated. Each man had his own worst fear. Some were afraid of head wounds, others feared chest, stomach, or throat wounds. But all the men had one common, terrifying fear. It was the fear of the "wound of wounds" According to Herr, guys so dreaded the wound that they would pray for God to take any other part of their body, but that. It was also the first injury they checked for if a shell burst in a group. According to the book, they would laugh hysterically once they had discovered that part of their anatomy was intact even if their legs were torn to shreds.
The fear of night was another common fear. In the book Herr tells about Day Tripper’s fear of night. In fact this fear was the origin of his name. During the day Day Tripper was extremely brave and would do anything. He would volunteer for the most dangerous daytime missions because for whatever reason they always got him back to his bunker before nightfall. Whatever fear of facing the enemy during the dangerous missions he might have had was outweighed by his fear of darkness. Night however was safer than the day. Like the Americans, the VC wasn’t able to do as much in the dark. The darkness however represented evil. The vile, sneaky, blood thirsty Gooks were out there somewhere and the darkness made their lurking threat seem more oppressive.
The basic fear of death is the most obvious and well covered kinds of fears discussed in Dispatches. According the author (page 134), there were many ways to die in the war torn jungles of Vietnam. One could be crunched in a chopper crash, or one could fly apart into thousands of pieces, one could die by the enemy’s bullet, or be impaled on a spike, or one could be taken by malaria.
These are but a few of the vast amount of deaths waiting for the GI’s in the jungles, and in the clearings, and in the air. It was overwhelming. Death was so easily found and so many of their buddies were finding it. On page 183, we see the story of a young Marine whom Herr knows. The Marine has volunteered for a "suicide squad" as he called it. He asked Herr about seeing a chaplain, but none were available. He had "that feeling" and he knew what happened to others who had had "that feeling". He left instructions for Herr to carry out if he should die, which he thought he would. As it turns out "the suicide squad" failed at committing suicide and all survived. The young Marine’s premonitions about his demise had no real base, but were products of fear.
Another example of how fear is used as a theme in the book, is the way the it was used for propaganda. On page 52, Herr describes an eery occurrence. One night the ear splitting, piercing cry of a baby cuts through the still night air. According t Herr, the sound would be bad enough during the day, but it was horrid at night. It made them uneasy, but it was aimed at the South Vietnamese villagers. The broadcast attempted to and likely succeeded in scaring the villagers by implying that the Viet Cong would harm their children. The Viet Cong was good at using the fears and concerns of their foes to aid their propaganda efforts. The GVN broadcast was attempting to do the same thing.
In the slice of the Vietnam War portrayed by Michael Herr, fear was always with the soldier like a piece of his TA-50 gear. It was with the correspondents as well. The word ‘fear’ is one of the most common words in the books. Practically every time Herr describes a ride on a chopper in the book, there is some reference to fear and apparently for good reason. As this quote from Vietnam
War veteran Bruce M.. Geiger (www.war-stories.com) shows chopper flights around Khe Sahn
were very dangerous and always a source of fear,
"All aircraft attempting to land at Khe Sanh received heavy ground fire, including .50-caliber machine gun, mortar, and artillery rounds. The crew chief had us lay our gear bags on the floor beneath us to shield our bodies from ground fire that might penetrate the underside of the chopper. Needless to say, we were all very nervous and puckered at the thought of .50-caliber rounds ripping through the thin underbelly of the chopper beneath us!"
For the Marines with whom Herr spent most of his time, the fear was of course brought on by the fact that they were surrounded by an unseen enemy that according to "Vietnam: A History" by Stanley Karnow was about 6 times larger and tirelessly tried day and night to annihilate them. But in addition it was brought on by their surroundings, and the cause for which they were fighting and dying. The patriotic fervor, which might have pushed the fears back was absent. A final contributing factor was the Marine’s immobile state. They were made to seek out and destroy the enemy. Instead they were in a defensive, stationary position, which was completely foreign to them. Their base was not set up well for defensive purposes. It was not dug in and fortified properly. The medical facility was poorly placed and insufficiently protected. Although Herr does not directly say it, he leaves the impression that these factors had a demoralizing effect on the troops, which would give strength to the demons of fear.
The fear these men felt often affected them religiously. They developed superstitions. An excellent example of this effect can be found on page 58 of Dispatches. Herr tells of the Standard Lord’s Prayer and the Standard Revised. The Standard Edition was the one issued by the Department of Defense and was intended to help combat fear and suffering. The Standard Revised version was not written down. Instead it was in the form of the desperate cries of men in pain, suffering, and confusion. Men who were afraid. Herr states that they would scream, beg, threaten, sob, make promises, and repeat holy names till their throats were dry and cracked.