Among the most private of contemporary writers,
Michael Herr has revealed little of his personal life. He was born and raised
in Syracuse, New York, and attended Syracuse University. He then moved to New
York City, where he worked in the editorial offices of Holiday magazine and
produced articles and film criticism for such periodicals as Mademoiselle and
the New Leader. In 1967, he persuaded Harold Hayes, the editor of Esquire
magazine, to send him to Vietnam. He stayed there for over a year and witnessed
some of the most intense fighting of the war. For a writer, Herr’s situation in
Vietnam was ideal: he had no specific assignment, he was relatively free to
travel where he liked, and he was unencumbered by deadlines. Herr initially
intended to write a monthly column from Vietnam but soon realized the idea was
“horrible.” In fact, Herr published only a few Vietnam pieces in Esquire and
did not get his war experiences into a book until 1977.
the war, Herr lived in New York for a time. After finishing Dispatches, he
collaborated on the screenplay for Apocalypse Now and, more recently, for Full
Metal Jacket. At last report, Herr lives in London.
is perhaps the most brilliant American literary treatment of the Vietnam War.
Ostensibly journalistic, Dispatches is more properly regarded as a
painstakingly executed product of the author’s imagination, if not quite a
novel then certainly a literary work whose most dominant and satisfying
qualities are novelistic. Dispatches is organized tautly, provides rich
characterization, and evinces an extraordinary style thoroughly compatible with
its subject. As Herr tells it, the Vietnam War was very much a 1960s spectacle:
part John Wayne movie, part rock-and-roll concert, part redneck riot, part
media event, and part bad drug trip. Herr’s style, so perfectly grounded in the
popular culture of the time, pulls at the reader with great power and
unmistakable authenticity. After a particularly terrible battle, a young Marine
glared at Herr, knowing he was a writer, and snarled: “Okay, man, you go on,
you go on out of here, you cocksucker, but I mean it, you tell it! You tell it,
man.” And so Herr did.
excerpt from Dispatches printed in the book comes from the beginning of the first
section, called “Breathing In.” Herr immediately establishes the hallucinatory
quality of the war, against which he depicts the violence and remarkable array
of characters. Herr’s field of vision is broad but always at its center are the
“grunts,” the infantrymen who invariably carried themselves through the war
with dignity and a carefully cultivated and life-sustaining combination of
humor and cynicism.