No one had a greater effect on how the Vietnam War has been processed in our popular consciousness than Michael Herr, best known as the writer of the book Dispatches and contributor to the screenplays of Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, who died near his home in upstate New York this past Friday. He was 76.
When you go to war, as Herr did, you naturally imagine the possibility of your own death. I’ve thought about mine before, not in a grand way, but just as a sort of curiosity: What cemetery (Arlington National Cemetery, or a local place)? What headstone (standard white granite, or marble)? What internment ceremony (military honors, or nothing at all)? And I wonder if during his years covering Vietnam, and later when he wrote about it, if Herr gave much thought to questions of how he would be memorialized, if at all.
Herr took a circuitous route to his war. He attended Syracuse University—among his classmates was Joyce Carol Oates—and then dropped out to pursue a writing career and to vagabond through Europe like his idol Ernest Hemingway. He picked up some publishing credentials—New Leader and Holiday magazines—and then struck a deal with Harold Hayes, then the editor of Esquire, to write a monthly column from Vietnam. Herr stayed for eighteen months, embedding with U.S. troops before anyone knew what an embed was, and returning to write Dispatches while simultaneously suffering an emotional collapse.
The book was an instant success. Fame followed and, eventually, Herr turned his back to escape it, relocating to England for many years. Yet, his influence on our modern conception of war is inescapable. Decades after he finished writing on Vietnam, an entire generation marched off to war in Iraq and Afghanistan with images from his books and the two films to which he contributed flickering in their heads, snatches of his dialogue trigger-ready on their tongues.
As Herr wrote Dispatches forty years ago, he seemed to understand the inextricable marriage between imagination and war:
I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good … they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guts-and-glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire … They were insane, but the war hadn’t done that to them … We’d all seen too many movies, stayed too long in Television City, years of media glut had made certain connections difficult.
Like others who were there for our war in Vietnam—Tim O’Brien, Oliver Stone, Karl Marlantes—Herr produced works that were, at their core, deeply anti-war. After witnessing so much destruction, it seems little surprise that many who’d experienced Vietnam then dedicated themselves to creative pursuits.
Yet did their anti-war message convey?
Quotes from Herr’s books and films are deeply embedded within the modern military’s lexicon. “Get some!” a mantra repeated by a Marine helicopter door gunner in Dispatches as he mows down Vietnamese civilians in a rice paddy means the same thing as “Go for it!” or “Gung ho!” in contemporary Marine-speak. I would need all my fingers and toes to tell you how many times I’ve watched the impacts of an airstrike or artillery fire mission geyser up clods of earth only to have the forward observer drop the radio handset from his ear and deadpan Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore’s line from Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” When asked from time to time what it was like to fight in Fallujah, I have yet to come up with an explanation that’s better than, “Exactly like the battle scenes in Full Metal Jacket.” In my rifle platoon we used to even joke, “It’s your favorite war movie and you’re the star.”
Does this result speak to Herr’s success in conveying the universal qualities of all war? Does it speak to the inextricable feedback loop between life and art? Does it evidence that anti-war books and films from a generation ago failed to convey their message to the following generation? I don’t think a definitive answer exits, only a series of contradictions.
Contradiction, after all, is the central truth of war, in which we renounce the bedrock of our humanity—thou shalt not kill—in order to preserve that very same humanity by killing. Or, as John Lennon eloquently put it: “Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity.”
What always set Herr’s work apart from his contemporaries was that he intuited this contraction. His books and films never veered into the polemic. He understood that you could hate war and love it, and that this position made you neither a brutal warmonger nor a precious dove. Toward the end of Dispatches, he recounts an episode in which his friend, the photographer Tim Page, is approached by a publisher to write a book, “whose purpose would be to once and for all ‘take the glamour out of war.’” Herr then writes:
Page couldn’t get over it.
“Take the glamour out of war! I mean how the bloody hell can you do that? Go take the glamour out of a Huey, go take the glamour out of a Sheridan … Can you take the glamour out of a Cobra, or getting stoned on China Beach? It’s like taking the glamour out of an M-79, taking the glamour out of Flynn … you can’t take the glamour out of that. It’s like trying to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of the Rolling Stones.” He was really speechless, working his hands up and down to emphasize the sheer insanity of it.
Herr leaves behind a body of work that never shied away from the glamour of war, but it also didn’t shy away from the horrors, the humor, and the insanity. Perhaps that’s why his work has lasted and will continue to last. He showed us the whole thing and in so doing created his own memorial long ago.