Michael Herr’s brilliant, bitter, and loving book was hailed as a masterpiece when it was published in 1977, and the critical consensus has held steady ever since. Somehow, a young journalist whose previous experience consisted mostly of travel pieces and film criticism managed to transform himself into a wild new kind of war correspondent capable of comprehending a disturbing new kind of war. “Herr is the only writer I’ve read who has written in the mad-pop-poetic/bureaucratically camouflaged language in which Vietnam has lived,” wrote playwright and Vietnam draftee David Rabe. John le Carré called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.” It created enough of a sensation to prompt me to shell out $8.95 for the hardcover, a lot of money for a college undergraduate in 1978. That was less than three years after North Vietnamese troops had marched into Saigon, during the odd political lull between Richard Nixon’s resignation and Ronald Reagan’s election. I read Dispatches then through particularly rose-colored glasses, confident that we had learned the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate. In the ensuring 29 years, my awe at Herr’s achievement has never lessened, but each of the three times I’ve re-read it, I’ve found new things. The book hasn’t changed, of course, but I have.
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