Michael Herr died a couple of days ago. There’s a pretty good chance you won’t be familiar with the name, but if you’ve ever seen a movie about the war in Vietnam — hell, if you’ve even heard there was a war in Vietnam — then Michael Herr has shaped your understanding of the world.
He was a correspondent for Esquire magazine who covered Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. Well, covered isn’t the right term. He didn’t report the news from the war; he reported the experience of Vietnam — and in 1977 he turned all those experiences into an astonishing book called Dispatches. It’s not a history of the war; it’s not a morality tale, it’s not one of those ‘war is hell’ stories; it’s a semi-hallucinatory account of what one war was like for one correspondent. Herr sort of dolphined through Vietnam — sometimes dancing lightly across the surface, and sometimes diving so deep that light barely penetrates.
Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar.
That’s the first line of the first chapter of Dispatches. The entire book is filled with lines like that — lines so beautiful you read them two or three times, lines so full of dread and horror you wish you hadn’t read them at all because you know they’ll stick like cockleburs in your brain — and if you’ve already got a head half-packed with memories you wish you didn’t have, you don’t really need any more. And yet you’re grateful for the beauty and horror of those lines because they ring true, all the way down to the bone.
Herr wrote the voice-over narration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and helped write the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket, the film by Stanley Kubrick. But nothing compares to Dispatches. Michael Herr was one of the writers who revealed to me the actual power of good writing. Dispatches had a profound effect on my life — on how I saw the world, on how I related to my family, even on how I’ve done the various jobs I’ve had.
Vietnam is what we had instead of happy childhoods.
I never served in Vietnam. I did my four years in military harness toward the end of the war, and I did every fucking thing I could do to keep my ass in the States. Both of my older brothers went through Vietnam, though. Marines, both of them. One completed a full thirteen month tour and came back physically whole, but emotionally fucked up. The other brother was only there for about five months, then spent about twice that long in the Great Lakes Naval Hospital getting rehab for the leg he nearly lost. He was in Recon; his team was essentially inserted into an ambush; they were hit even before they could set up a perimeter. Now he has a chunk of steel instead of a thigh bone, receives a disability check every month from Uncle Sugar, and the State of Iowa gives him a license plate that gives him a preferred parking space.
Herr wrote a great deal about the Marines. He spent a lot of time with them. Marines re-taking the city of Hue, Marines under siege in Khe Sanh. If those names aren’t familiar to you, and there’s probably no reason they should be, just imagine the worst combat scenes you’ve seen in movies, then add some 60s rock. Reading about Marines in Dispatches helped me understand my brothers; it helped me love them.
Herr also wrote about LURPs — the guys who did the Army’s long-range recon patrols. That was helpful because I eventually ended up working with a former-4th Division LURP. We were both private investigators specializing in criminal defense work, and sometimes that meant going to scary places and asking nosy questions of scary people. This guy was a little crazy and a little scary himself, so he fit right in. We worked as a team — he’d be armed; I wouldn’t (I didn’t like carrying a firearm — not because I object to them, but because I felt a gun would make me over-confident and less situationally aware; being frightened kept me alert).
Being a LURP had taught him two things in detail. First, how to keep watch. When we’d go someplace dangerous, he’d sidle off quietly to one side and just keep watch while I’d approach the subject and do the talking. He’d take up a position, silent and relaxed and vigilant, and he’d sort of blend into the woodwork. It also taught him about violence — to avoid it when possible, and to commit to it when it was necessary. Overwhelming, sudden, sharp violence.
Knowing he was there never stopped me from being scared, but there was tremendous comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone. I learned to trust him totally. Trust is a word folks toss around a tad too freely, I think. When I say I trusted this guy, what I mean was I was confident that if things went Oh Shit, he’d step up. No hesitation. He might not be able to save me from getting hurt, but I knew he wouldn’t leave me — and that means a lot.
I don’t think we’d have become friends if Dispatches hadn’t allowed me to peek into the experiences guys like him had gone through. In fact, I’m not sure we were really friends at all; we had very little in common. Just that bond of trust. I think it meant a lot to him that I trusted him so much.
I guess Dispatches served me as a sort of guidebook, offering insights into people I loved and relied on. The book is almost 40 years old, and it still helps me keep the horizon line fairly straight. When I have my own terrifying PTSD moments and nightmares, it actually helps to know mine are a mild version — that I’ve had pretty good luck to limit my own personal horror show to the occasional moment of panic and sweaty, gasping nightmare.
Hell, it even helps me just to remember this brief passage from Dispatches. Herr wrote about the practice of saying “good luck” to somebody:
…and though I meant it every time I said it, it was meaningless. It was like telling someone going out in a storm not to get any on him, it was the same as saying “Gee, I hope you don’t get killed or wounded or see anything that drives you insane.”
Obviously I haven’t been killed. The only physical wound I’ve received came from a rather aggressive Rottweiler. And I’ve only seen things that wake me at night, occasionally leaving me too afraid to go back to sleep. That’s unpleasant, but it truly counts as good luck, and because of Dispatches I’m able to be thankful for it.
I wanted to include a photo of Michael Herr from his Vietnam days — but I couldn’t find any that are worth a damn. He describes one, though:
Dana [Stone] used to do a far-out thing, he’d take pictures of us under fire and give them to us as presents. there’s one of me on the ramp of a Chinook at Cam Lo, only the blur of my right foot to show that I’m not totally paralyzed, twenty-seven pushing fifty, reaching back for my helmet and the delusion of cover. Behind me inside the chopper there’s a door gunner in a huge dark helmet, a corpse is laid out on the seat, and in front of me there’s a black Marine, leaning in and staring with raw raving fear toward the incoming rounds, all four of us caught there together while Dana crouched down behind the camera, laughing. “You fuck,” I said to him when he gave me the print, and he said, “I thought you ought to know what you look like.”
That’s the photograph I wanted to show. Not this trench-coated guy in a suit and tie. It’s not that the Michael Herr on the ramp of that Chinook is the real Michael Herr, but it’s the Michael Herr who exists in my imagination.