Michael Herr Died – His Dispatches Brought The Vietnam War Home

“Dispatches is beyond politics, beyond rhetoric, beyond ‘pacification’ and body counts and the ‘psychotic vaudeville’ of Saigon press briefings. Its materials are fear and death, hallucination and the burning of souls. It is as if Dante had gone to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocketful of pills: our first rock-and-roll war, stoned murder.”

So wrote John Leonard of The New York Times when the book Dispatches – written by journalist Michael Herr – was published.

Michael Herr was born in Lexington, Kentucky on the 30th April, 1940, and he was raised and educated in Syracuse, New York. His love of the written word soon led him into journalism and after graduating from Syracuse University he spent time travelling and freelancing for various magazines. In 1976 he went to Vietnam on behalf of Esquire magazine ostensibly to produce a monthly column and though he did produce a few columns, he collected a vast storehouse of material that later became Dispatches, a novel about the horror of the war in Vietnam.

‘Dispatches’ was published to great critical acclaim and it brought him to the notice of Hollywood. Francis Ford Coppola persuaded him to co-write the narrative for Apocalypse Now, and he co-wrote the script for ‘Full Metal Jacket’ produced by Stanley Kubrick. Both of these films were gritty portrayals of the Vietnamese conflict and were closer to the truth than any of the previous war films.

The relationship between the military and Hollywood and the glamorous manner in which war was portrayed in the movies disturbed Herr immensely. In Dispatches he wrote:

“I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by 17 years of war movies before coming to Vietnam and getting wiped out for good. You don’t know what a media freak is until you’ve seen the way a few of these grunts would run around during a fight when they knew there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guys and glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot for the networks.”

Herr was a talented writer but he battled depression in his formative years. Not looking for fame he found the limelight after the release of Dispatches to be confounding causing him to withdraw from all that he had known. He moved to live in London and refused most media interviews for many years.

With the release of his novel about the famous gossip columnist, Walter Winchell, he told an interviewer with the Los Angeles Times:

“The reception [for Dispatches] couldn’t have been better, frankly — it couldn’t have been more wonderful. It totally changed my life – but it also blew my cover.”

His publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, confirmed the death of Herr at age 76 in a New York Hospital. Michael Herr is survived by his wife, Valerie; daughters Catherine and Claudia; and siblings Steven Herr and Judy Bleyer.

The literary world and his legion of fans will miss the passionate and knowledgeable writing for which Dispatches and his other novels were known.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE