Michael Herr, whose depictions of Vietnam redefined the genre of war reporting, died Thursday at a hospital near his home in upstate New York after what his publisher said was a long illness. He was 76.
When Herr left to cover the Vietnam War for Esquire, he didn't bring a great amount of journalistic experience. At 27, he'd been an amateur film critic, written some travel pieces and had worked on Syracuse University's literary magazine. But by the time his book Dispatches came out 10 years later, none of that mattered.
"I was there to watch," he wrote. "I went to cover the war and the war covered me; an old story, unless of course you've never heard it. I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything. ... I didn't know, it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did."
Dispatches was an instant success. The New York Times wrote that the book "is a certain kind of reporting come of age ... scaled of abstractions down to the viscera, the violence and the sexuality understood and transcended. Stunning."
It had other famous backers, too. John le Carré called it "the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time." It's still written about regularly.
Yet Herr struggled. "The problem with Vietnam," he told writer Ed Vulliamy in an interview, "is that if your body came back, your mind came back too. Within 18 months of coming back, I was on the edge of a major breakdown. It hit in 1971 and it was very serious. Real despair for three or four years; deep paralysis. I split up with my wife for a year. I didn't see anybody because I didn't want anybody to see me." Herr was able to publish Dispatches in part because much of the book had been written before his depression.
Herr avoided publicity. He didn't give many interviews, didn't want to be a celebrity, and certainly didn't want to revisit Vietnam. But return he did, helping Francis Ford Coppola with the narration for Apocalypse Now and co-writing the Full Metal Jacket screenplay with Stanley Kubrick and Gustav Hasford. (Kubrick tried so hard to persuade Herr to "return to his 'hell realm' of 'Nam" that, according to Vulliamy, the period of 1980-83 felt like "a single phone call lasting three years, with interruptions.")
Herr wrote only a few other books, including a novel about the gossip columnist Walter Winchell. But his output never seemed to hurt his reputation.
"Every writer who has tried his or her hand at war journalism (myself included) would go to meet Michael Herr rather like a student of the cello would approach Mstislav Rostropovich," Vulliamy wrote.
Herr's war reporting had changed the game.