Remembering Michael Herr, Author of the Vietnam War Memoir ‘Dispatches’
If you have positive notions of war, read this book to get that smacked out of you
I was sad to learn that Michael Herr, the author of the Vietnam War memoir Dispatches, died Thursday at age 76.
When I first opened a copy of Dispatches, it was immediately clear it was unlike any other book about war I’d ever read. For one, it’s partly fictionalized and is strictly not a work of history or a study of military operations. Herr was a war correspondent for Esquire for 18 months, underwent a psychological breakdown after returning home, recovered and then completed the book.
Dispatches is a deeply affecting and painful account of Herr’s personal experience during the Tet Offensive, and written in the New Journalism style shared by Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. To read it requires immersing yourself in the war’s extreme, absurd environment through Herr’s eyes.
The book is more about mood, senses and individual soldiers. And there are very few like it.
“You a reporter?” a Marine asked Herr before one of his early helicopter trips into the field. “I’d said, ‘No, a writer,’ dumbass and pompous, and he’d laughed and said, ‘Careful. You can’t use no eraser up where you wanna go.”
Herr’s account, published in 1977, is extremely bleak and went on to influence Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, which Herr co-wrote with Stanley Kubrick and Vietnam veteran Gustav Hasford. Spy novelist John le Carre called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.”
f you’ve never read Dispatches but have seen those films, parts of the book may come across as dated and cliche — particularly Herr’s slang and ’60s counter-culture references. But that’s an unfair reading on my part, owing to having absorbed its language in the media it influenced.
The cliche-seeming passages are only cliches after 39 years removed from the source.
The book also blended horror and anxiety of combat zones with the mundane press conferences of military journalism. The differing perspectives of soldiers and officers, the latter whom regularly deceive reporters as the war descends into madness, is jarring.
“These official briefings did the same thing to your perception of the war that flares did to your night vision,” Herr wrote.
Read the Remainder at War is Boring
Esquire re-published Herr’s AMAZING full length short story War Sucks from 1977.
Stay Alert, Stay Armed and Stay Dangerous!