A moment to mourn the passing of Michael Herr, one of the very few writers who can claim to be the voice of a generation. His Vietnam War memoir Dispatches was dismissed by some of his peers at the time as semi-fictional and so somehow inauthentic, but it captured the horror, absurdity and pathos of our SE Asia debacle the same way James Jones, Erich Maria Remarque and Stephen Crane captured earlier wars for posterity.
I spent my own military service entrenched behind a desk in the Rhineland, grateful to be there rather than in ‘Nam, but in Herr’s prose I heard the voices of the men I knew who had served there. Like Ernie Pyle and unlike most of the “war correspondent” poseurs in Vietnam, Herr had an ear for dialogue and a genuine empathy for the men (most of them really boys) fighting the war he was covering.
“If somebody were to ask me what it was about, I would say that the secret subject of Dispatches was not Vietnam, but that it was a book about writing a book,” Herr said. “I think that all good books are about writing.”
Dispatches was certainly one of the best works to emerge from the New Journalism wave, which began with Truman Capote and reached its apogee with Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion and a few others before declining into self-conscious parody and irrelevance.
Thompson (who is gone now himself) once said Herr, “puts all the rest of us in the shade.”