Michael Herr, the author of Dispatches and co-writer of Full Metal Jacket, is dead at 76.
His masterpiece, Dispatches, has been out of fashion for a while, but when it was published in 1977, it was widely regarded as the seminal work of new journalism about the Vietnam War. Today, aside perhaps from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, it is the seminal work about the war, full stop.
It arrived late. Herr served as Esquire’s Vietnam War correspondent from 1967 to 1969, and returned to the United States intending to quickly produce a book about what he’d seen there.
But 18 months after his return, he suffered a nervous breakdown and wrote nothing for five years. The book ultimately arrived in 1977, and Hunter S. Thompson’s reaction is as accurate as any: "We have all spent 10 years trying to explain what happened to our heads and our lives in the decade we finally survived," he wrote, "but Michael Herr’s Dispatches puts all the rest of us in the shade."
I read Dispatches when I was 19 years old. I won’t try to prove to you how good it is, or how important it is, how it is one of the greatest works of the second great age of literary nonfiction in The United States. But I will say that I remember writing a very pained journal entry back then, at the end of my first year in college, something like, What’s even the point of trying to write after this?
I will say that Dispatches is not an easy book to summarize or to draw cheap lessons from. It is about the war in Vietnam, of course, and it is a condemnation of the war, but like all excellent nonfiction, it is not a solution but a complication.
It describes the world precisely, but it does not describe it easily. Dispatches leaves you with a keener sense of what happened to Herr and to the soldiers around him, but with this clarity comes a messy, difficult uncertainty, too. We’ve seen this world now. What do we make of it?
I’ll leave you with this passage, from the first chapter:
But he always seemed to be watching for it, I think he slept with his eyes open, and I was afraid of him anyway. All I ever managed was one quick look in, and that was like looking at the floor of an ocean. He wore a gold earring and a headband torn from a piece of camouflage parachute material, and since nobody was about to tell him to get his hair cut it fell below his shoulders, covering a thick purple scar. Even at division he never went anywhere without at least a .45 and a knife, and he thought I was a freak because I wouldn't carry a weapon.
"Didn't you ever meet a reporter before?" I asked him.
"Tits on a bull," he said. "Nothing personal."
But what a story he told me, as one-pointed and resonant as any war story I ever heard, it took me a year to understand it:
"Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened."
I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story; when I asked him what had happened he just looked like he felt sorry for me, fucked if he'd waste time telling stories to anyone dumb as I was.