Art of War: The Legacy of Michael Herr

September 26, 2017 | 7 books mentioned 12 5 min read


Michael Herr died in June 2016. He was the journalist that I, like most of my peers who reported from Iraq, wished we could have been. His book Dispatches appeared 40 years ago, the pinnacle of embedded-style war reportage.

covercoverBesides Dispatches, Herr co-wrote Full Metal Jacket, and part of Apocalypse NowAmerica’s three defining cultural artifacts from the Vietnam War. Herr wrote Martin Sheen’s voiceover that begins Apocalypse Now, talking about Saigon and Vietnam: “All I could think of was getting back to the jungle. I wanted a mission, and for my sins they gave me one.”

If writing was a mission, it had been a long time since Herr had gone into the jungle. Instead, Herr chose silence—in 2001, he gave an interview for a documentary, First Kill, and he wrote a short book about his friend Stanley Kubrick.

coverBut after 9/11, Herr had nothing to say about the years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Herr gave no comment on Sebastian Junger titling his own book War, as though Junger could somehow be definitive; Herr offered no television commentary on Fox News or PBS, taking a stand one way or the other; Herr never complained when reporters and freelancers, present company included, aped his surrealistic style in ways much more akin to plagiarism than homage.

I could call Herr’s silence a form of discipline, for realizing he had nothing new to say; I could call it a sin, for bottling up his wisdom and pulling a Salinger while the world crashed down around him; I can call it coping, choosing peace and quiet over a cacophony that’s only gotten worse—why demean oneself in such a world? And would his observations have carried any extra weight just because of a book from 1977?

Chances are he would have been one more target of society’s craving for revisionist history, of questions and accusations: “What did he make up? Is Dispatches really nonfiction? Composite characters? Is he a fabulist? Did he even go to Vietnam?”

I trusted Herr from my first moments in Iraq, in 2007. I got off a helicopter and a young captain offered to take my bags. “I packed them,” I told him, “I’ll hump them.” I learned that from Herr, who wrote “I never let the grunts dig my holes or carry my gear.” And I thought of Herr at the Bayji Joint Security Station, where I arrived just after a truck bomb nearly destroyed the place.  Like Herr had written, “It was no place I’d have to tell anyone not to call me ‘Sir.’”

When I got back, I couldn’t wait to talk about it—sending photos and stories here and there, hustling up some publications. That was 2007, 2008, and 2009, now eight years since my last time in Iraq. I think about Iraq every day, write about it occasionally, talk about it more than I wish I did.

By the time I went to Iraq, Herr had long retreated into silence–not even mystery, since there was no Salinger-esque clamor for his reemergence. He lived long enough to see Vietnam demystified and reconstructed. He became a devout Buddhist, meditating at his home in upstate New York. Was that how he coped? Is that the right word?

Of course, our wars haven’t ended. This generation of soldiers and journalists and plenty who did both has just started reckoning with what Herr spent 40 years to get to.

As a coping method, “silence” is certainly the last choice many of us have made. Dignity, modesty, humility—surrendered like the Bayji compound was lost to ISIS. Who can blame us? This merry-go-round has too many brass rings hanging just within reach: book deals, screenplays, talking slots on news programs and bytes of space in Internet columns, essays in collections that might be read or might not. So much to say, and too many years to go before we can hope for Herr’s perspective.

Herr showed that war reporting—embedded reporting, specifically—could capture the soldier’s voice and life while keeping the real focus on the writer. Ernie Pyle never did that, not really. Herr’s prize—and curse—was presenting his own story foremost. For those writing about the wars in first person, third person, it doesn’t matter—it’s often a means to an end, the byline the subject.

I know this is true. My bookshelf is full of novels and nonfiction telling war stories from dozens of personal points of view. There is the patriotic jerkoff next to the self-flagellating regret; the melodramatic tale of a bright-eyed lieutenant rests on top of the cynical bureaucrat laughing at his own joke; a detached reporter unwilling to choose a side rests on a shelf next to a colonel’s second-guessing.

My own literary attempt is there too—my reporting packaged in a self-produced creation, a marketing tool and manuscript to send to publishers and agents. It doesn’t hold up—my 2009 conclusions fall apart, by 2017 long since revealed as a mirage. At least it wasn’t published.

I’m certainly not silent—I like to write reviews of books related to the wars, offering my take on somebody else’s. Now and then, I head to a library or small venue where the silverhairs spend an evening, and I narrate my photos and encapsulate my three summers spent in Iraq. It pays, and I can reuse my script and just make sure to change the venue’s name when I tell them thanks for having me. It’s all very familiar, and I tell myself it’s maybe new to them, and isn’t that worth something?

I was in the Army, went to Iraq in Desert Storm decades ago. I play the veteran’s card when I can, an easy comeback against the cocktail commandos of our toxic modern era. But it’s a reflexive superiority that feels badly disciplined—sounds good only in the moment.

Still, in writing classes, I do enjoy using different drafts of my work as examples of revision—to show how the overwrought melodrama of the first draft becomes a reasonable conclusion by the final. It’s a form of coping, the drafting and revision, that is—working out the absurdities that no audience should be subjected to. Our emotional investment with a first draft is a kind of reverence—we’re so pleased with our words, with our thoughts and with ourselves. But that’s pride, not message. The revision process requires us to be—in Lester Bangs’s perfect words—contemptuously indifferent, to cut without passion or prejudice. Writing gives us that underrated opportunity.

And then you have to say: I’m done. Leave the final draft and step away and now it’s in the world. Dispatches is Herr’s final draft—he never came back and said, “What I meant was…,” or judged his experience against another’s, or said “I told you so.” I am envious of that ability to take himself out of the game. If we want to know what he thinks, we can go to his book—words that will not change.

On Elvis Presley’s death 40 years ago in August 1977, Lester Bangs wrote that we would never agree on anything like we did with Elvis. We’re never going to agree on anything like we did on Michael Herr.

covercoverNow there are so many other wartime books to read, and who says Dispatches is better than any other? I thought it was Michael Herr, you thought it was David Finkel or Sebastian Junger or Clinton Romesha or Siobhan Fallon, or Zero Dark Thirty or Lone Survivor or whoever you thought spoke to what you expected a war experience to read like, to look like, to capture the violence, chaos, and heartbreak.

If you don’t believe that we all once agreed on Michael Herr, I promise it was true. But he never tried to convince us.

In my war reporting I did my part to make these wars palatable to the masses. Do I feel a hint of moral crime from that contribution? It happened during a war. Did that thought occur to Michael Herr? Maybe he saw his copycats and sycophants and his silence meant: “Be careful what you wish for.”

But Herr was confident enough in silence to let us work that out ourselves. Myself, I see the brass rings; I will earn a couple hundred bucks to narrate my photos, or I’ll write an essay to keep my name current. I went to the wars and I still want a mission. For my sins, occasionally I get one.

reported from Iraq as a freelance photojournalist from 2007 to 2009. He is also an Army veteran of Desert Storm. His work has appeared at The Rumpus, The Daily Beast, The New York Times, and dozens of other newspapers nationwide.


  1. Having never been to war, I hesitate to comment, and yet. Mr. Webster, by using Herr’s book as a central point, I think too many war paticipants’, reports come across as rah rah USA, or even rah rah ME. I don’t have my library in front of me to state modern war reporters who have validity (and indeed, it is almost impossible for war reporters to enter war zones due to the free for all killing), but I respect that you bring attention to this type of necessary reportage. I also think that our personal interest in wars across the world has nought to do with curiosity (healthy though that is) but more a vital and crucial recognition and acknowledgement that PEOPLE need our help. It can be done, whether it is joining Amnesty International, Doctor’s without Borders, Journalist’s without borders where the requirement is merely signing petitions if you cannot afford to donate.

  2. H!

    “Having never been to war, I hesitate to comment, and yet.”

    You’ve never been to a lynching, either, H, but that doesn’t disqualify your opinion regarding the topic. You’re a good person with eyes to see and it’s heartening that you speak out. It’s not quite a popular (or populist) thing to do, is it?

    War is “The West’s” most profitable genocidal export… and when was the last time “we” were defending anything more noble than an emerging market? And how, btw, are any of these invasions “wars”? Wars usually involve at least two opposing armies… not a techno-fascist juggernaut rolling over gaggles of shepherds and farmers with vintage rifles defending their huts. The fact that NATO sometimes arms some of those “radicalized” (ie on the payroll) farmers with modern equipment.. like, say, hundreds of brand new Toyota Camrys (to achieve various unmentionable objectives)… is another topic entirely.

    So, you’re quite right to question this blatant propaganda, H. If these crypto-macho articles ever once admitted that “we” are the aggressors… *we* are the Terrorists (are Afghanis flying lethal drones over Virginia or is it the other way around?) … the premise (our problematic Good vs misguided Evil) would be inverted and I’d consider the articles informative. It’s what they *never* say that speaks unintentional volumes. I mean, we can’t even admit it about Vietnam, yet? Ho Chi Minh and George Washington have a lot more in common than the average brainwashed, GI-Joe-loving schoolboy thinks… except, of course, that Ho Chi Minh wasn’t defending stolen land. Go figure.

    PS Comic relief:

  3. What an unfortunate name for a car! Ha! And indeed Steve you are right about wars, they are all pretty much an invasion of sorts by a grossly entitled empire. Maybe except for some internecine conflicts, war can be avoided. The money by the laughably titled “defense” budget could be diverted to health care (which I believe is a human right). I think as humans we are addicted to war and this includes rape and pillage. People are fooling themselves if they think Americans are more honourable on this point.
    I hope to never see a lynching but with the death penalty still being carried out in way too may American states, lynchings still essentially happen, only in a more quiet way.

  4. H!

    Anyone who wants their eyes opened to the nauseating, utterly un-heroic, irrefutably evil reality of the American War Machine (war as an industrial process: corpses the product, piracy and genocide the business model) should read “Kill Everything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam” by Nick Turse. Dead civilians are misrepresented as “collateral damage” by supposed official policy and the War Machine’s propaganda arm (what we call “news”), but civilians are the primary targets. That would explain the million+ “accidental” casualties in Iraq, for example.

    This is nothing new:

    “For all the talk of bringing “civilization” to the Philippines, American commanders responded to the Filipino insurgency with the utmost brutality. Over the course of the next decade, and especially in the first few years of the conflict, it became commonplace for entire villages to be burned and whole populations to be imprisoned in concentration camps. No mercy was accorded to Filipino prisoner, a large number of whom were shot. This certainly was not in keeping with the spirit of “benevolent assimilation” proclaimed by President McKinley.

    “From Liberators to Killers: American Attitudes Toward Filipinos

    “The attitudes of American commanders involved in pacifying the Philippines are remarkable for both their disdain for the people they had allegedly “liberated” and their willingness to resort to the most ruthless methods in suppressing resistance. For example, General J.M. Bell, wrote in December 1901:

    I am now assembling in the neighborhood of 2,500 men who will be used in columns of about fifty men each. I take so large a command for the purpose of thoroughly searching each ravine, valley and mountain peak for insurgents and for food, expecting to destroy everything I find outside of towns. All able bodied men will be killed or captured. … These people need a thrashing to teach them some good common sense; and they should have it for the good of all concerned.”

  5. I imagine Bell fancied himself smart as fuck too. All swagger, no compassion, probably went to chuch every sunday. The book you mention I am familiar with, I didn’t pick it up at the time as it seemed quite dense and I have read a lot about Vietnam. My favourite writer now is Joanna Bourke. Her latest book explores, in part, the history and morality of gun selling, especially by America and England and the trillion dollar industry that it is. Imagine using some of that money to rescue refugees drowning in the Mediterranean? Our world has got its priorities ass backwards.

  6. Now we have Aung San Suu Kyi, her Nobel prize be damned. Doing nothing for the genocide in her country. What is her deal? Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Yes. Yes, I think it does. How weak our world leaders are. How cruel and aloof they are and, frankly, stupid. No century is without its terror but the 21st century may come out on top as the worst of the worst. Sometimes I think I simply can’t bear it. And anyone who thinks “It can’t happen here” – well shit, it has already happened here with slavery for hundreds of years and civil war, KKK, civil rights, Vietnam lottery draft. Lottery draft! Imagine that! There are podsites that explain and then broadcast the actual radio announcers stating the lottery numbers. Shirley Jackson had nothing on LBJ. And for those who say civil war is history, I was born in 1961, barely a century past civil war, a blink of an eye. A mere blink.

  7. H!

    “How weak our world leaders are.”

    Truth be told, the vast majority of our “leaders” are figureheads. They’re often used as scapegoats, or distractions, or good-will-generating icons put in place to cover for atrocities, the way, for example, they used the hapless Mandela to give the world a warm-fuzzy feeling while Apartheid reconfigured itself into a sleeker version (ie, what good is “black political power” without black control of the financial institutions?). I’m not saying that those figureheads haven’t done wicked things, or even nice things, on their own, from time to time… I’m just saying that they aren’t at the top of the pyramid. You could throw quite a few of them in prison without changing a thing about current conditions. The only way to change things is to Opt Out… they can’t do much without the tacit consent of Us Billions… but that will take quite a few years of propaganda-(and hypnosis)-smashing education. It took more than 4 or 8 or 100 years to get into this headlock and it will take quite a while to get out of it!

  8. The tragedy of Mandela. And going back to post world wars’ reshaping of the middle east with american chosen leaders, poor Palestine, poor Iran, but Steven I sent you a message…. My heart is in place, but I am not as intellectual as you. Get a load of this: I live in wine country in Ontario, where the farmers set off tiny explosions that sound like gun shots to keep the birds away. That is the worst of my problems, although it startles the crap about of me while out on a bike ride. Imagine if those explosions were meant for me. And hey didnt Mao order his citizens to bang pots and pans to stop birds from landing in fields, causing a nation wide famine…but Steven – I sent you a message, I am not an intellectual.. I am not giving up on world history, in fact I have ordered Anne Applebaum’s book on Stalin’s happily conducted Ukraine famine. Omg and then of course there is the Irish famine, where the English were sending Irish grown corn and grain to England while the Irish wandered the country in search of food, eating bark off trees. It just goes on and on. All I can do is sigh and feel helpless.

  9. Nathan Webster, thank you for this opportunity to discuss war. I now depart from the most sorrowful cacophony of the wars of which you speak.

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