After repressing thoughts on the subject for the better part of a decade, America is just beginning to deal with the Vietnam war and its impact on our culture and collective conscience. Or, perhaps more correctly, America is beginning to deal with not having dealt with Vietnam -- which seems to me to be the real theme of Michael Cimino's film The Deer Hunter. As horrible as hero Robert De Niro's experience in Vietnam is his refusal or inability to talk about it back in the States.

Recognizing the reluctance to deal with Vietnam is where Elizabeth Swados begins in her new show Dispatches (playing at the Public Theater in New York), a rock musical based on Michael Herr's best-selling book of the same name. The idea of a rock musical about Vietnam may strike some as absurd; to fans of Herr's book, it may seem sacrilegious. It's possible that Swados purposefully invites this skepticism. Dispatches is staged like a rock concert, with onstage musicians, scaffolding for speakers, an electronic marquee and a cast of 11 youngsters in fatigues. This concept comes from a passage in the book ("Out on the street I couldn't tell the Vietnam veterans from the rock 'n' roll veterans. The '60s had made so many casualties, its war and its music had run power off the same circuit..."), but it nonetheless seems distancing at first, almost trivializing. Vietnam as shallow pop entertainment? Have we absorbed the war, one grumbles, without digesting it? The device, however, proves to be only a tool for lunging into material painful, confused and complicated. The astounding achievement of Dispatches is that it begins by peering through a telescope at Khe Sanh, 1968, from the safe space of America, 1979, places you face-to-face with the scared, lonely kids fighting a senseless war, and leaves you reduced to tears of rage and grief. It's a sort of sneak attack.

Michael Herr is a writer who went to Vietnam to cover the war not for a newspaper but for posterity. Accordingly, his style is more literary than journalistic. In lieu of attending Pentagon propaganda briefings, Herr hung out with the Marine "grunts." Looking beyond the olive-drab uniforms and helmets emblazoned with cliched battle slogans, he found a different story in every man: the crazy-eyed, pill-gobbling soldier on this third tour who admits, "I just can't hack it back in the World"; the guy who carries an oatmeal cookie from home wrapped in three pairs of socks for good luck, though the others tease him about it ("When you go to sleep, we're gonna eat your fucking cookie"); the officer who mentions that he misses the nightmares he used to have, with an implied sadness at having adapted so well. The movies always depict war as constant combat, heroic action, strength under stress. Herr captures, more than anything else, the prolonged day-to-day inaction of Vietnam -- the language, the atmosphere, the reliance on music and drugs, the camaraderie that had nothing to do with patriotism and everything to do with survival.

In addition, Herr addresses the peculiar nature of war correspondence, that unsavory task of reporting atrocities in newsprint prose, of taking pictures instead of pulses, of extracting some truth from one's own romanticized danger and voyeurism. "I went there," writes Herr, "behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn't know, it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did." I can imagine this passage from the book leaping out at Elizabeth Swados, whose temperament is, in many ways, perfectly suited to Dispatches. The young, awesomely talented and prolific composer/director has a passionate social concern that could be termed excessive -- she feels responsible for everything. Fortunately, she also has as much courage as anybody currently working in musical theater.

What Swados did with Dispatches was select passages and set them to music in a variety of styles, supplementing the songs with dialogue and spoken text from the book. Because of the book's episodic arrangement -- it is literally a series of "dispatches" -- it translates naturally into a form similar to, but more cohesive than, Nightclub Cantata; and Swados's musical eclecticism retains the multiplicity of voices and personalities involved. The overall fractured structure of the show -- the staging is loose, busy and multileveled; the choreography improvised; the music a steady flow from pop to country to rock to Asian, with the marquee providing captions -- certainly accommodates Herr's composite portrait of Vietnam better than a compact Dateline: Hell adventure plot would. Besides, Swados has a special sympathy for people who are both victims and survivors. Like her Runaways, like the Auschwitz Jews in Nightclub Cantata, like The Trojan Women (which she scored for director Andrei Serban), the Marines in Dispatches become vessels for her righteous and eloquent -- if unassailable -- anger at injustice and inhumanity.

I have only a couple of reservations about Dispatches. Swados's characteristic humorlessness is sometimes a problem, robbing lines like "Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods" of their grim comic potential. And while I thought at the time that most of the music was very exciting, I realized later that it was Herr's exquisite writing, and not Swados's score, that gripped me most; the actors' best moments usually occurred during monologues rather than songs. (The 11-member cast is excellent, especially Paul McCrane, Gedde Watanabe, and Rodney Hudson; some have complained about Swados's using women in the show, but it didn't bother me -- after all, this is theater.) Nonetheless, the songs I remember best -- the C&W tune "Song of the Lurp," rocker "Helicopter, Helicopter," and ballad-like "Bourgainvillea" and "Beautiful for Once" -- share a melodiousness that is a marked improvement over the composer's usual nervous rhythms and recitative.

It's true that Swados's rock music is less authentic, especially when compared to the music Herr specifically mentions hearing in the trenches (Stones, Mothers, lots of Jimi Hendrix). And she'll no doubt be ridiculed for admitting to the New York Times that she had to go back and study rock music of the period -- one of the liabilities of being more a child of the '70s than a "'60s casualty." But there are distinct advantages to Swados's distance from the era. Like Milos Forman, who succeeded in the impossible task of making a meaningful film of Hair, her approach to the '60s is not nostalgic but inquisitive. And it is Swados's passionate curiosity, combined with Herr's verbal grace and rock 'n' roll energy, that enables Dispatches to build so forcefully to the devastating discovery that "Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we have all been there."

Boston Phoenix, June 1979