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.”