The Depiction of Violence and the Soldier's everyday life in Michael Herr's "Dispatches" and Tim O'Brien's "The Things they carried"

Seminararbeit, 2008

14 Seiten, Note: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1 Topic statement
1.2 Thesis statement

2. Main Part
2.1. Style and Narrative transmission in Dispatches and The Things they carried
2.2. Commonalities in depicting the Vietnam War in Dispatches and Things
2.3. Depicting the war with Postmodernism and New Journalism

3. Conclusion

1. Introduction

1.1 Topic statement

Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Tim O’Brien’s The Things they carried (I will use the abbreviation Things) are two well-known examples of Vietnam War Literature. Things approaches the Vietnam War as “a work of fiction”. The author states in the beginning of his book: “Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names and characters are imaginary”. Critics refer Things to Postmodernism.

Dispatches, however, is not fiction: Michael Herr covered the war for 2 years (1967-69) for the Esquire magazine and in 1978, the year of the publication, Dispatches was nominated for the National Book Award for nonfiction (Bonn 28). The critics label Dispatches as New Journalism:

“Michael Herr’s Dispatches is the work of a war correspondent, but it is not journalism in the ordinary sense of the word, i.e. an objective, detached reporting of the “facts”. Instead it is a work of the so-called New Journalism, a hybrid form that, in typical postmodern fashion, blurs traditional genre distinctions. (...) The New Journalism abandons all pretense of impersonal objectivity instead an intense, substituting subjectivity that (...) also employs such devices of fiction as characterization, flashbacks and interior monologue” (Carpenter 36/37).

This term paper deals with the depiction of the Vietnam War in Dispatches and Things, with a special focus on the depiction of violence and the everyday life of the soldiers. Because of the fact that the books are different in style and narrative transmission, I will put briefly some emphasis on those aspects in the beginning.

1.2 Thesis statement

Both writers depict the war without moral purposes, showing as well the negative features of the war (death, terror, fear, brutalization, deadening, etc.) as the properties of war which could be regarded as “positive” (a thrilling and seductive experience, comradeship, “beauty”/”majesty” of the war).

2. Main Part

2.1. Style and Narrative transmission in Dispatches and The Things they carried

First of all, I want to compare the physical setup of Dispatches and The Things they carried. Dispatches is written as one single Vietnam War report by the Esquire correspondent Michael Herr, consisting of several vignettes. Things is composed of twenty-two stories that can be read independently but “the intent is clearly that this text be read notjust as a collection of independent stories but also as a unit” (Tegmark 204). Herr employs all the time the same narrator, namely the autodiegetic, first-person narrator “Michael Herr the Vietnam War correspondent”, who tells what he has seen with his own eyes and what soldiers, correspondants and other persons have told him:

“I remembered the way a Phantom pilot had talked about how beautiful the surface-to-air missiles looked as they drifted up towards his plane to kill him, and remembered myself how lovely .50-calibre tracers could be, coming at you as you flew at night in a helicopter, how slow and graceful, arching up easily, a dream, so remote from anything that could harm you” (Herr 132).

O’Brien, however, uses different techniques of narrative transmission: There are two different “Tim O’Briens”, first “Tim O’Brien the middle-aged veteran” (Tegmark 205) and “Tim O’Brien the young soldier”(Tegmark 204). Additional, there also some “secondary narrators, (...) they tell a story which “Tim O’Brien, the middle-aged veteran, then passes out to his narratee” (Tegmark 204/205). Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is one example for such a secondary narrator who substitutes O’Brien as a narrator. He presents the first of the two narrative lines in the opening title story “The Things they carried”, telling the story of Cross’ Love for Martha and his feeling of fuilt for the death of Ted Lavender (Tegmark 245/246). The other narrative line is done by a “very overt and seemingly omniscient narrator” (246) who tells the perspective of the “average grunt” (246).

The middle-aged veteran narrator “refers to himself as “Tim O’Brien”, the author of the very narrative he is narrating, thus giving the impression of autobiography” (Tegmark 206). In In the Shoes of a Soldier Mats Tegmark compares this narrator with the narrator of If I die in a Combat Zone and he comes to the conclusion that the narrator of Things is “much more overt” than If I die in a Combat Zone (Tegmark 206). I agree that the narrator is overt because the requirement, that for an overt narrator “the narrator appears on the level of narrative transmission as an individualized speaker or concrete persona” is given: “Many years after the war Jimmy Cross came to visit me at my home in Massachusetts, and for a full day we drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and talked about everything we had seen and done so long ago, all the things we still carried through our lives” (O’Brien 25). Another proof for the overtness of this narrator is that “the middle-aged writer and veteran “Tim O’Brien”, the author of these very stories; as such he not only comments on the stories he is telling in this volume, but also refers to other O’Brien books, in a kind of intertextual and metafictional gesture”:

“As the novel developed over the next year, and as my own ideas clarified, it became apparent that the chapter had no proper home in the larger narrative. Going after Cacciato was a war story; Speaking of Courage was a postwar story. Two different time periods, two different sets of issues. There was no choice but to remove the chapter entirely. The mistake, in part, had been in trying to wedge the piece into a novel” (O’Brien 158).

A final important evidence for the overtness of this narrator is that he also employs some excursus of “how to tell a true war story: A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behaviour, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it.” (O’Brien 68). Tegmark labels this narrator as “highly unreliable” (Tegmark 206) because O’Brien writes:

“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening truth. Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. (...) Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him” (O’Brien 179).

2.2. Commonalities in depicting the Vietnam War in Dispatches and Things

By dealing with the depiction of war in both books it is not possible to separate the scrutinized aspects violence and the everyday life of the soldiers because these two aspects are entangled with each other: Violence and Death belong to the everyday life of the combatants.

This permanent confrontation with violence and death results in a brutalization of the soldiers, which becomes obvious in Dispatches and Things: “There was a famous story, some reporters asked a door-gunner, ’How can you shoot women and children?' and he’d answered, ’It’s easy, youjust don’t lead ’em so much’” (Herr 34). In Things the death of an American soldier is retaliated by destroying the Vietnamese village of Than Khe: “They burned everything. They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage (.. .)”(0’Brien 14).

Another brutal scene of revenge takes place when the platoon comes across a “baby VC water buffalo”:

“He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee. The animal did not make a sound. It went down hard, then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear. He shot it in the hindquarters and in the little hump at its back. (...) It wasn’t to kill; it was to hurt. (...) Nobody said much. The whole platoon stood there watching, felling all kind of things, but there wasn’t a great deal of pity for the baby water buffalo” (O'Brien 75).

Death becomes so omnipresent that the soldiers lose piety:

“The living, the wounded and the dead flew together in crowded Chinooks, and it was nothing for guys to walk on top of the half-covered corpses packed in the aisles to get a seat, or to make jokes among themselves about how funny they all looked, the dumb dead fuckers” (Herr 24). Another examples for the loss of respect towards dead comrades are when Curt Lemon is killed by a rigged artillery round and his extremities are blown onto a tree: “The gore was horrible, and stays with me. But what wakes me up twenty years later is Dave Jensen singing ‘Lemon Tree’ as we threw down the parts” (O’Brien 78/79) and a scene from Dispatches: “The old hostility of the grunt towards Marine Air became total on 861: when the worst of it was over and the first Ch-34 finally showed over the hilltop, the door gunner was hit by enemy ground fire and fell out of the chopper.

It was a drop of over 200 feet, and there were Marines on the ground who cheered when he hit” (Herr 123). The general deadening of the soldiers leads to atrocious deeds, for example, Mitchell Sanders cuts of the thumb of a dead Vietcong and gives it to Norman Bowker as a good-luck charm (O’Brien 11/12) and the young Mary- Anne who got seduced by the war wears a necklace ofhuman tongues (O’Brien 103).

And there is also the story “about the kid who had mailed a gook ear home to his girl and could not understand now why she had stopped writing to him” (Herr 148).


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The Depiction of Violence and the Soldier's everyday life in Michael Herr's "Dispatches" and Tim O'Brien's "The Things they carried"
Philipps-Universität Marburg  (Amerikanistik)
American War Literature
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
433 KB
American War Literature, The Things They Carried, Dispatches, Tim O´Brien, Michael Herr, Depiction of Violence, Depiction of everyday life, Style, Narrative Transmission, Post Modernism, New Journalism
Arbeit zitieren
Philipp Kock (Autor:in), 2008, The Depiction of Violence and the Soldier's everyday life in Michael Herr's "Dispatches" and Tim O'Brien's "The Things they carried", München, GRIN Verlag,


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