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Michael Herr, 1940–2016

June 27, 2016 | by

Photograph by Jane Bown

Photograph by Jane Bown.

No one could write like Michael Herr. We all tried: scribes and grunts, killers and chroniclers, fool novelists and crackpot journos. Herr’s work doesn’t so much loom over contemporary war writing as course within it, a dark ideal and omen all at once. The electricity of the language. The power—and futility—of bearing witness. The howling, howling rage. Whether you were reading him for the first or the hundredth time, you always felt like his pages were offering a strange air; not oxygen exactly, but still something vital. Dexedrine breath, maybe, like dead snakes kept too long in a jar.

That’s one of his lines, of course. No one could write like Herr.

Herr, a titan of New Journalism, died last week, at the age of seventy-six. He made his name in Vietnam as a young Esquire correspondent who shunned official briefings for infantry patrols in the jungle and helo assaults with the air cav. He sometimes carried a rifle to gain access, and once told the Boston Globe, “I only had to use a weapon twice. And I had to, I had to. It was impossible not to.”  

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Ernie and Me

February 2, 2016 | by

Falling in—and falling out—with Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway in uniform as an American Red Cross volunteer, 1918. Portrait by Ermeni Studios, Milan, Italy. Photo: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

As a young man of a certain kind, I read a lot of Hemingway growing up. My sixteen-year-old self, full of angst and emo aches, found a kindred spirit in Jake Barnes, even if Jake’s brooding was much deeper, darker, and more significant than my own. The northern Michigan of the Nick Adams stories bore a passing resemblance to the Tahoe Basin, where I grew up, and my earliest attempts at creative work were pale imitations of “The End of Something” and “The Three-Day Blow.” The Old Man and the Sea bored me to video games the first time I tried it, but that didn’t stop me from extolling Santiago’s badassness at the dinner table.

This was pre-9/11 America, in a suburban, white-collar community far removed from battle or turmoil. My parents were both children of World War II veterans, and both had protested the Vietnam War; as a result, my brother and I had been raised with a healthy respect for the military, mixed with a healthy skepticism toward the application of military force. While my Hemingway obsession did confuse my mom a bit, she later told me she figured at least it wasn’t drugs, or French philosophy. Read More »

Transcending the Archetypes of War: An Interview with Phil Klay

March 4, 2014 | by

Phil Klay

Photo: Hannah Dunphy

In late 2011, Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq during the Surge, published “Redeployment,” a harrowing short story about a group of Marines returning stateside from the war. It drew praise for its subject matter, its lean prose, and its psychological acuity. Klay’s first collection, also titled Redeployment, is out this week. Its twelve stories revolve around war and its aftermath. Klay’s narrators include a State Department official charged with popularizing baseball in Iraq and a military chaplain offering spiritual guidance to an out-of-control unit.

Like a young professor who is still as comfortable in the world as he is in the library, Klay has an easygoing warmth. He exudes a passion for and knowledge of his craft. He is also unfailingly punctual. Last month, we sat down over coffee to discuss his book, the state of contemporary war literature, and the pitfalls of drawing too much from personal experience when writing fiction.

First books by vet-writers often read as rough autobiography, but in your collection, every story has a different narrator. Was this is a deliberate choice?

It was. When I first came back from Iraq, I of course found myself thinking a lot about it. Not just my experiences, but those of people I talked to, friends, and colleagues. What did our deployment mean, where did it fit into the broader perspective of what we as a country were doing? What was it like going out and making condolence payments to Iraqi families? What about the artilleryman who sent rounds downrange but never saw the effects of what happened, didn’t know how to conceptualize the bodies of those he helped kill, but wanted to? Even in my earliest stories, I knew I wasn’t writing about myself.

It also felt important to convey that modern war is this huge industrial-scale process with a lot of parts making the machinery work. There’s an incredible diversity of experience. We have a tendency to think of war as this quasi-mystical thing, and that interpretation flattens the experience—by using different perspectives, I wanted to open a place for readers to compare and contrast, to make judgments, to engage.

“Prayer in the Furnace” is narrated by a military chaplain in Ramadi during one of the most violent periods of the war. How did that story come about?

A lot of the great pieces of journalism from Iraq showed how important command influence was in violent, aggressive environments, where Marines and soldiers had a constrained set of choices to make in sudden moments. Sometimes that command influence was positive. Sometimes it wasn’t. So as “Prayer in the Furnace” developed in my mind, I decided to tell it from the perspective of someone who is sympathetic to those men and the decisions they make, but removed enough to adopt a more contemplative stance. An observer who’s with them, but not of them.Read More »