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Art of War: The Legacy of Michael Herr

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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.

Besides Dispatches, Herr co-wrote Full Metal Jacket, and part of Apocalypse Now–America’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.

But 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.

Now 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.

Surprise Me!