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.”
By his own account, Herr spent more time in his Saigon apartment smoking weed and taking notes than he did filing articles. Those notes would become Dispatches, a masterwork of creative nonfiction and one of the best books to emerge from the wreckage and ruin of the Vietnam War. An acid-rock love letter of memories, reportage, and anecdotes, Dispatches didn’t appear until Herr had been back in the States for a decade, a fraught period that involved severe depression and a temporary separation from his family. Herr had lost friends in Vietnam, such as Sean Flynn, Errol’s doomed son, and he lost other friends later, back home.
Coming back to the world can be a hard, lonely business, and that transition is sometimes harder on war correspondents than it is on the soldiers and marines. We get parades, and pills if we want them. The reporters get assigned to city hall.
Yes, Herr was bona fide. So was his prose. Take the prologue of Dispatches, five hundred words of sonic force about a map of colonial Vietnam that hung on the wall of his Saigon apartment:
That map was a marvel, especially now that it wasn’t real anymore. For one thing, it was very old. It had been left there years before by another tenant, probably a Frenchman, since the map had been made in Paris. The paper had buckled in its frame after years in the wet Saigon heat, laying a kind of veil over the countries it depicted … That’s old, I’d tell visitors, that’s a really old map.
The entire book pops like that. Dispatches is full of missives about living, about surviving, about dying, about the pastoral Vietnamese countryside and the hysteria of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive and the homecoming, the goddamn homecoming:
Home: twenty-eight years old, feeling like Rip van Winkle, with a heart like one of those little paper pills they make in China, you drop them into water and they open out to form a tiger or a flower or a pagoda. Mine opened out into war and loss.
In the same way that literature by military veterans can’t escape Hemingway even when it’s defying him, war-correspondent lit has to reckon with Herr. The best reporting out of Iraq and Afghanistan—from Dexter Filkins to Sebastian Junger to Gayle Tzemach Lemmon to George Packer—shows Herr’s pervasive influence: the literary bones; the loose, informal conversations with the boots on the ground; and the surreality of an industrial enterprise dedicated to killing human beings as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Herr wrote other things, some of which were related to Vietnam and some of which weren’t. Dispatches led to opportunities in Hollywood; Herr contributed to the narration of Apocalypse Now and cowrote the screenplay of Full Metal Jacket. He wrote a screenplay that became a novel about Walter Winchell, the media’s scandal king, and later a pseudo-biography about Stanley Kubrick. Both were well received but didn’t come close to achieving the acclaim that Dispatches did.
And so what? To paraphrase Joseph Heller, who was asked why he didn’t write another book as good as Catch-22: Well, who did?
I first read some of Herr’s Esquire work in high school, but I didn’t come to Dispatches until college. The book changed the way my brain interacted with language. That tactile sense of conveying the weird and mundane experience of life under the constant threat and thrill of death—it was unlike anything else I’d read. “How many times did someone have to run in front of a machine gun before it became an act of cowardice?” remains one of the cleanest, most disruptive sentences and ideas I’ve come across. Dispatches captured the messy, foolish waste and glory of postimperial America well before the nation had figured out it was any of those things.
When I was in Iraq as a young army officer, I revisited Herr’s magnum opus. It had always transfixed me, but this time around I found it oddly, perversely, calming. For one thing, no matter how rough the day or patrol, Herr’s book served a stark reminder that at least I wasn’t in Vietnam. For another thing, his storytelling, such as his account of a conversation with a three-tour Green Beret, renewed a certain faith I had in something, maybe just in storytelling itself:
“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 a 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.
I’m sure there are other reasons for finding temporary peace in a book about perpetual war, but I’m no psychologist so I’ll just leave it there.
A reclusive and private individual, in later life Herr bucked against his association with Vietnam and war literature. Much like Tim O’Brien, who has said that he wants to be remembered as a writer of peace, Herr seemed deeply ambivalent about finding a wide audience. But readers didn’t have to be drawn to literature about Vietnam or war to admire Herr. If they had a freak bone in their body or a passing curiosity in their veins, they came to his writing like it was firelight. He was that good.
The night after I heard about Herr’s death, I got drunk and reread much of Dispatches, including the prologue with the old map and the Frenchman and the visitors. Lit up on whiskey and nostalgia, I found my own map, a map of the rural sectarian town in Iraq where we’d been stationed for fifteen months as part of the fabled surge. It still had all its creases and rubbed-out marker stains and long-forgotten symbols. I should’ve given it to our replacements, but I’m soft for keepsakes. With a finger, I traced over the intersection where we’d found a large roadside bomb waiting to blast, then the field favored by orphans peddling energy drinks and porn. Then I found the combat outpost where we’d lived, a mansion that once belonged to one of Saddam’s retired generals, which played host to fifty cav scouts in a desert we knew little about.
“We should hang this up,” I said to our dog. My wife was asleep and would’ve disapproved, both of the map-hanging and the dog-talking. “It’d be good at parties.”
The dog stood up and stretched. It was time for our midnight walk.
Still, I thought, That map’s old. That’s a really old map.
Matt Gallagher is the author of the novel Youngblood.