R.I.P. Michael Herr


War journalist and screenwriter Michael Herr has died at the age of 76.

His Dispatches, the classic of war journalism and so influential you can’t even measure it, is on most Best Nonfiction Books of All Time worth their salt. Herr was a war correspondent for Esquire, sent to Vietnam cover the war, as the press have been doing since time immemorial. The rules of war journalism were clear. Until Vietnam and until Herr. Herr’s breakthrough was to dig in to the atmosphere of the grunts on the ground, the malaise, the chaos, the pointlessness of it, the sheer amount of drugs everyone was ingesting (this aspect of it got Francis Ford Coppola’s attention, and Herr ended up contributing the voiceover for the screenplay for Apocalypse Now.) Herr ended up also collaborating with Stanley Kubrick on the script for Full Metal Jacket. The Esquire pieces came out in real time, but they were not collected and published to a wider audience until 1977. The culture still staggered in the wake of events, and there were other concerns that had risen in the exhausted late 1970s. But there was also a tiny sliver of perspective on just how insane that war really was, how poorly run, how meaningless, and Dispatches went off like a bomb going off. Formal recognizable war journalism would not suffice for such a war. Such a war required something different. Herr’s book is practically hallucinatory (you’ll hear that word come up a lot in descriptions of it). The book itself is stoned. You’re on the ground with the soldiers, it’s wet, you’re high, you don’t even know why you’re there, there is nothing in the world outside of that pitch-black crushing jungle. This is one of the only books on Vietnam (outside of memoirs) that gets the loving and grateful stamp of approval from veterans of that war (veterans are, rightly so, very very picky about such things. They LIVED it. Dispatches was required reading in my family, talked about often by my Vietnam-vet uncles). Dispatches has more in common with gonzo journalism than, say, William Shirer’s amazing dispatches from Berlin in 1932-33. Michael Herr, once he was in the thick of it in Vietnam, understood that politicians would always be politicians, but that the real story was what it was LIKE over there. Let other journalists “interpret” the press releases and press conferences and write nice adult dispatches for the complacent folks back home to read. Herr was the voice of the men (and boys) on the ground. Hunter Thompson, the Grand Master of Gonzo, expressed his reaction to what Herr had done with:

“We have all spent 10 years trying to explain what happened to our heads and our lives in the decade we finally survived – but Michael Herr’s Dispatches puts all the rest of us in the shade.”

John Leonard in his New York Times review on December 4, 1977, wrote:

Dispatches by Michael Herr, contains all the subjective energy, the bruised ear, that characterized the 1960’s at their best. It is style disappearing into substance, into history, as though the war, and loves and hates its own perception. In a dull time of maundering, it is an edge, cutting and scraping. I wish it were fiction.”

Alfred Kazin addressed the political aspect of the book (buried in the haze of pot smoke, nearly drowned out by the music). Kazin wrote that Herr’s

“big effort is not literary but political. To his generation, Vietnam did come down to so much self-enclosed, almost self-deafened despair. No one gets above that specific cruel environment.”

Here is a particularly hallucinatory and creepy excerpt from Dispatches:

There were times during the night when all the jungle sounds would stop at once. There was no dwindling down or fading away, it was all gone in a single instant as though some signal had been transmitted out to the life: bats, birds, snakes, monkeys, insects, picking up on a frequency that a thousand years in the jungle might condition you to receive, but leaving you as it was to wonder what you weren’t hearing now, straining for any sound, one piece of information. I had heard it before in other jungles, the Amazon and the Philippines, but those jungles were “secure,” there wasn’t much chance that hundreds of Viet Cong were coming and going, moving and waiting, living out there just to do you harm. The thought of that one could turn any sudden silence into a space that you’d fill with everything you thought was quiet in you, it could even put you on the approach to clairvoyance. You thought you heard impossible things: damp roots breathing, fruit sweating, fervid bug action, the heartbeat of tiny animals.

You could sustain that sensitivity for a long time, either until the babbling and chittering and shrieking of the jungle had started up again, or until something familiar brought you out of it, a helicopter flying around above your canopy or the strangely reassuring sound next to you of one going into the chamber. Once we heard a really frightening thing blaring down from a Psyops soundship broadcasting the sound of a baby crying. You wouldn’t have wanted to hear that during daylight, let alone at night when the volume and distortion came down through two or three layers of cover and froze us all in place for a moment. And there wasn’t much release in the pitched hysteria of the message that followed, hyper-Vietnamese like an icepick in the ear, something like, “Friendly Baby, GVN Baby, Don’t Let This Happen To Your Baby, Resist the Viet Cong Today!”

Sometimes you’d get so tired that you’d forget where you were and sleep the way you hadn’t slept since you were a child. I know that a lot of people there never got up from that kind of sleep; some called them lucky (Never knew what hit him), some called them fucked (If he’d been on the stick …), but that was worse than academic, everyone’s death got talked about, it was a way of constantly touching and turning the odds, and real sleep was at a premium. (I met a ranger-recondo who could go to sleep just like that, say, “Guess I’ll get some,” close his eyes and be there, day or night, sitting or lying down, sleeping through some things but not others; a loud radio or a 105 firing outside the tent wouldn’t wake him, but a rustle in the bushes fifty feet away would, or a stopped generator.) Mostly what you had was on the agitated side of half-sleep, you thought you were sleeping but you were really just waiting. Night sweats, harsh functionings of consciousness, drifting in and out of your head, pinned to a canvas cot somewhere, looking up at a strange ceiling or out through a tent flap at the glimmering night sky of a combat zone. Or dozing and waking under mosquito netting in a mess of slick sweat, gagging for air that wasn’t 99 percent moisture, one clean breath to dry-sluice your anxiety and the backwater smell of your own body. But all you got and all there was were misty clots of air that corroded your appetite and burned your eyes and made your cigarettes taste like swollen insects rolled up and smoked alive, crackling and wet. There were spots in the jungle where you had to have a cigarette going all the time, whether you smoked or not, just to keep the mosquitos from swarming into your mouth. War under water, swamp fever, and instant involuntary weight control, malarias that could burn you out and cave you in, put you into twenty-three hours of sleep a day without giving you a minute of rest, leaving you there to listen to the trance music that they said came in with terminal brain funk. (“Take your pills, baby,” a medic in Can Tho told me. “Big orange ones every week, little white ones every day, and don’t miss a day whatever you do. They got strains over here that could waste a heavy-set fella like you in a week.”) Sometimes you couldn’t live with the terms any longer and headed for air-conditioners in Danang and Saigon. And sometimes the only reason you didn’t panic was that you didn’t have the energy.

Every day people were dying because of some small detail that they couldn’t be bothered to observe. Imagine being too tired to snap a flak jacket closed, too tired to clean your rifle, too tired to guard a light, too tired to deal with the half-inch margins of safety that moving through the war often demanded, just too tired to give a fuck and then dying behind that exhaustion. There were times when the whole war itself seemed tapped of its vitality: epic enervation, the machine running half-assed and depressed, fueled on the watery residue of last year’s war-making energy. Entire divisions would function in a bad dream state, acting out a weird set of moves without any connection to their source. Once I talked for maybe five minutes with a sergeant who had just brought his squad in from a long patrol before I realized that the dopey-dummy film over his eyes and the fly abstraction of his words were coming from deep sleep. He was standing there at the bar of the NCO club with his eyes open and a beer in his hand, responding to some dream conversation far inside his head. It really gave me the creeps — this was the second day of the Tet Offensive, our installation was more or less surrounded, the only secure road out of there was littered with dead Vietnamese, information was scarce and I was pretty touchy and tired myself — and for a second I imagined that I was talking to a dead man. When I told him about it later he just laughed and said, “Shit, that’s nothing. I do that all the time.”

John Leonard summed up the impact and atmosphere of the book in his 1977 review for The Times:

“If you think you don’t want to read any more about Vietnam, you are wrong. Dispatches is beyond politics, beyond rhetoric, beyond ‘pacification’ and body counts and the “psychotic vaudeville’ of Saigon press briefings. Its materials are fear and death, hallucination and the burning of souls. It is as if Dante had gone to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocketful of pills: our first rock-and-roll war, stoned murder.”

U.S. soldier counting off the months in Vietnam. Michael Herr was his voice. Rest in peace.

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6 Responses to R.I.P. Michael Herr

  1. Sad to hear of this. I literally read Dispatches for the first time last month and it’s one of the very few books I’ve ever read that lived up to and beyond its enormous hype. Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are fine but compared to Dispatches they need never have been made. Also saddened but not surprised to learn yet again that all the “types” he described, good and bad, are still with us, still enduring and perpetrating the same evils and aburdisms according to their respective lots. We’ve learned nothing. R.I.P. indeed.

    • sheila says:

      // they need never have been made. // well, I don’t know about THAT but I agree that Dispatches is essential.

  2. Will says:

    January 1980 my lung collapsed for the second time and having already experienced having a chest tube inserted I asked if the process could possibly be made less painful. The old school doctor from the first procedure just pounded that thing through my chest wall with brute force. The young doctor assigned to the second procedure tried to be nice and used a scalpel. He nicked a vein and instead of my lung reinflating as air escaped through the tube I started bleeding to death. As I waited for transfusions so I could survive the emergency surgery, I read Dispatches. One of the best reading experiences of my life.

    • sheila says:

      Will – my God, what a story! Thank you so much for sharing it – and I’m glad you’re okay.

      It’s amazing the books that come to us in very specific times and the impact they can make.

  3. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Wow, Herr and Ralph Stanley on the same day!

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