Legendary author of ‘Dispatches’ dies aged seventy six…
The Vietnam War has been documented in print like no other conflict since the Second World War, there are thousands of accounts both factual and fictitious but only a handful can claim to be ‘go to’ works on a war which saw reporters and photographers descend upon in their hundreds.
Dispatches is, quite rightly, held as not only one of the greatest books ever written on the Vietnam War but on war itself. Michael Herr’s seminal book was published in 1977 some ten years after his year long stay reporting for Esquire magazine.
It was unusual for a journalist working for a monthly publication to cover the war and particularly for so long. Having joined the Army Reserve as a young man to allegedly dodge the draught he managed to move freely about the country and was determined to join the soldiers wherever the fighting was most fierce. The period between ’67 and ’68 saw some of the worst battles of the war, Herr bunkered down with the soldiers and wrote some formidable articles on daily life for the soldiers.
Herr belonged to that movement of Americans who were deeply suspicious of the war and American foreign policy. His war, his book, was one of showing those back home the reality of bloody conflict and he spoke for a new generation determined to have their voices heard. Dispatches was, in part, fictionalised but nobody doubted the account, his subsequent and self-confessed melt-down gave, if it were ever needed, further credence to the authenticity of the book. It prompted John Le Carré to describe it as ‘the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time’ and set the standard for subsequent books on war and soldiering.
His new found fame never sat easily with him, he lived for many years in England and contributed to the screenplays for ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and Coppola’s version of the Conrad classic ‘Heart of Darkness’.
I have twice read Dispatches, it deserves to be read and read again. Herr captured not only the essence of the Vietnam War but the period in which it was fought. He captured the solidarity of not only the soldiers but of the reporters who quickly came to realise this was no foreign holiday.