Syracuse, New York
Writer Michael Herr is best known as the author of Dispatches, a nonfiction account of the Vietnam War that received tremendous critical acclaim when it was published in 1977. The memoir, which was based on Herr's experiences in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 as a correspondent for Esquire magazine, provided readers with a vivid picture of the war and its impact on young American soldiers. More than two decades later, the book continues to be viewed as a classic work of war literature. As Stewart O'Nan wrote in The Vietnam Reader, "of all the books to come out of the Vietnam War, journalist Michael Herr's Dispatches ... is most often cited as the best, capturing the thrills, terror, and madness of the war."
Early career in journalism
Michael Herr was born and raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Syracuse, New York. He studied journalism at Syracuse University before securing work in the early 1960s as a writer for Holiday magazine and other periodicals. By the mid-1960s, however, he recognized that the biggest story in American journalism was the growing war in Vietnam.
"America has never come to terms with Vietnam. We're not great at telling the truth about certain kinds of national behavior. The war sure twisted us."
The Vietnam War pitted the U.S.-supported nation of South Vietnam against the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its guerrilla allies—known as the Viet Cong—in the South. The Communists wanted to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and unite the two countries under one Communist government. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the United States sent money, weapons, and advisors to South Vietnam to help it fend off the Viet Cong. In 1965 the United States began using thousands of American combat troops and extensive air bombing missions to crush the Communists. But deepening U.S. involvement in the war failed to defeat the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese. Instead, the war settled into a bloody stalemate that eventually claimed the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers. As disillusionment over the war increased, the American public became bitterly divided over the nation's involvement in Vietnam.
Herr's efforts to secure a reporting assignment that would take him to the war-torn country eventually paid off. In 1967 he reached an agreement with Esquire magazine to go to Vietnam and provide monthly reports on the war. Soon after his arrival, however, Herr convinced the magazine to suspend the monthly columns in favor of longer articles that would allow him to explore the true nature of the conflict. "Something [about the war] wasn't even being asked," he explained in Dispatches. "Hiding low under the fact-figure crossfire [statistical analysis of the war] there was a secret history, and not a lot of people felt like running in there to bring it out."
Time in Vietnam
Herr spent the next eleven months traveling across South Vietnam. During that time, he personally witnessed many of the war's most famous events. He reported on the massive Communist invasion known as the Tet Offensive, in which Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces simultaneously attacked dozens of South Vietnamese cities. He also provided coverage of the siege of Khe Sanh (a siege is a military strategy in which an army attempts to capture a city or military base by surrounding and blockading it). This remote American-South Vietnamese military base endured weeks of deadly sniper, artillery, and mortar attacks from Communist forces before the siege was finally broken.
Herr also spent large blocks of time in the company of American soldiers as they went about their duties. He joined them on dangerous patrols deep into the Vietnam jungle and ate and drank with them at base camps. These experiences enabled Herr to develop a deep understanding of the dark and violent world the soldiers inhabited and the emotions they struggled with on a daily basis. "After a year I felt so plugged in to all the stories and the images and the fear that even the dead started telling me stories," Herr recalled in Dispatches. "However many times it happened, whether I'd known them or not, no matter what I'd felt about them or the way they died, their story was always there and it was always the same: it went, 'Put yourself in my place.'"
As the months passed by, Herr recognized that the possibility of death haunted every soldier he met. Moreover, his constant exposure to death and violence made him frighteningly aware of his own vulnerability. "You could die in a sudden bloodburning crunch as your chopper hit the ground like dead weight," he wrote in Dispatches. "You could fly apart so that your pieces would never be gathered, you could take one neat round [bullet] in the lung and go out hearing only the bubble of the last few breaths, you could die in the last stage of malaria with that faint tapping in your ears, and that could happen to you after months of firefights and rockets and machine guns . . . . You could be shot, mined, grenaded, rocketed, mortared, sniped at, blown up and away so that your leavings [remains] had to be dropped into a sagging poncho and carried to Graves Registration."
By the time Herr left Vietnam in 1968 to return to the United States, he felt a great sympathy for the American soldiers who remained. "Humanly I was on their side because they were in a real [terrible situation] and you'd have to be some kind of monster not to be on their side," he told Eric James Schroeder in Vietnam, We've All Been There. In addition, he felt a deep obligation to write about the war's violence and brutality on behalf of the American soldiers who were trapped in the conflict. As he wrote in Dispatches, the soldiers would "ask you with an emotion whose intensity would shock you to please tell it [tell about the war], because they really did have the feeling that it wasn't being told for them, that they were going through all of this and that somehow no one back in the World [America] knew about it."
After returning to America, Herr resumed his journalism career. He also began putting together a book about his time in Vietnam. But writing about his wartime experiences proved to be an emotionally exhausting task. In addition, Herr learned that three of his closest friends from Vietnam—all photographers—had been killed or reported missing in action. These factors combined to push Herr into what he later called "a massive physical and psychological collapse." He subsequently underwent intensive therapy to come to terms with his experiences in Vietnam. Herr gradually recovered, and in the mid-1970s he resumed writing.
In 1977 Herr finally published the book, nearly ten years after he left Vietnam. The book, called Dispatches, was a brilliant and original work of literature that blended his own wartime experiences and impressions with an intense examination of the horror, insanity, and dark excitement of the Vietnam War. The work caused an immediate sensation among historians, critics, and general readers alike. It was both a best-seller and a nominee for the 1978 National Book Award in nonfiction. More than two decades later, it continues to be regarded as one of the true masterpieces of Vietnam War literature. "Major literary scholars of war are unanimous in their judgments that this rock 'n' roll work of literary journalism is perhaps the single most powerful book to come out of that [the Vietnam] war, and the book is almost universally considered a landmark," wrote Donald J. Ringnalda in Dictionary of Literary Biography.
Screenwriter for Vietnam films
After completing Dispatches, Herr helped write the screenplays for two major films about Vietnam, Apocalypse Now (1979) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). In the early 1980s he relocated to England with his wife, Valerie, and two daughters. The Herr family remained in Europe for the next decade before returning to the United States and settling in upstate New York in the early 1990s.
In the years since Dispatches, Herr has produced few other literary works. In fact, his only other full-length book to appear over the past two decades was Walter Winchell: A Novel, a 1990 novel-screenplay about a famous American newspaper columnist of the 1940s.
Herr is also known as an intensely private person. He dislikes being photographed and rarely gives interviews. In 1992, however, he granted an interview to Eric James Schroeder for the book Vietnam, We've All Been There. During their conversation, Herr expressed doubt about the United States' ability to ever completely recover from the wounds it suffered during the Vietnam War. "America has never come to terms with Vietnam," he told Schroeder. "We're not great at telling the truth about certain kinds of national behavior. The war sure twisted us. We haven't felt the same about ourselves since Vietnam. We're haunted by it, but we won't name the shape of the ghost; we won't say what it is."
Ciotti, P. "Michael Herr: A Man of Few Words." Los Angeles Times Magazine, April 15, 1990.
Herr, Michael. Dispatches. New York: Knopf, 1977.
Morgan, Thomas B. "Reporters on the Lost War." Esquire, July 1984.
Myers, Thomas. Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam. Oxford University Press, 1988.
Ringnalda, Donald J. "Michael Herr." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 185: American Literary Journalists, 1945–1995, First Series. Detroit: Gale, 1997.
Schroeder, Eric James. Vietnam, We've All Been There: Interviews with American Writers. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992.
Herr Recalls the Atmosphere in Vietnam
In the following excerpt from Dispatches, journalist Michael Herr writes about the atmosphere of fear and menace that he experienced during his travels in Vietnam. In the first paragraph, he talks about all the different ways in which people died in the war. In the second paragraph, he recounts how it felt to hitch rides on the American military helicopters that transported troops to and from combat zones and military bases throughout South Vietnam.
All the same, one place or another it was always going on, rock around the clock, we had the days and he [the enemy] had the nights. You could be in the most protected space in Vietnam and still know that your safety was provisional [temporary], that early death, blindness, loss of legs, arms or . . . major and lasting disfigurement—the whole rotten deal—could come in on the freaky-fluky as easily as in the so-called expected ways, you heard so many of those stories it was a wonder anyone was left alive to die in firefights and mortar-rocket attacks. After a few weeks, when . . . I saw that everyone around me was carrying a gun, I also saw that any one of them could go off at any time, putting you where it wouldn't matter whether it had been an accident or not. The roads were mined, the trails booby-trapped, satchel charges and grenades blew up jeeps and movie theaters, the VC [Viet Cong] got work inside all the camps as shoeshine boys and laundresses and honey-dippers, they'd starch your fatigues and [dispose of your garbage] and then go home and mortar your area. Saigon and Cholon and Danang [cities in South Vietnam] held such hostile vibes that you felt you were being dry-sniped every time someone looked at you, and choppers fell out of the sky like fat poisoned birds a hundred times a day. After a while I couldn't get on one without thinking that I must be out of my . . . mind.
Fear and motion, fear and standstill, no preferred cut there, no way even to be clear about which was really worse, the wait or the delivery. Combat spared far more men than it wasted, but everyone suffered the time between contact [battle with the enemy], especially when they were going out every day looking for it; bad going on foot, terrible in trucks and APCs [armored personnel carriers], awful in helicopters, the worst, traveling so fast toward something so frightening. I can remember times when I went half dead with my fear of the motion, the speed and direction already fixed and pointed one way. It was painful enough just flying "safe" hops between firebases and LZ's [landing zones]; if you were ever on a helicopter that had been hit by ground fire your deep, perpetual chopper anxiety was guaranteed. At least actual contact when it was happening would draw long ragged strands of energy out of you, it was juicy, fast and refining, and traveling toward it was hollow, dry, cold and steady, it never let you alone. All you could do was look around at the other people on board and see if they were as scared and numbed out as you were. If it looked like they weren't you thought they were insane, if it looked like they were it made you feel a lot worse.