While Herr was in Vietnam, the American press began to refer to a new narrative style called New Journalism. Like Herr's writing, New Journalism was characterized by its effort to not only record events accurately but to also include the subjective elements of the story—the unique insights, ironic observations, humor, and references to popular culture. Because the narrative was dependent on the subjective as well as the objective, New Journalism gave the reader much more color than the standard feature story but critics noted the danger of too much subjectivity.
Michael Herr's decision to cover the Vietnam War was made in the offices of Esquire magazine. The editor at Esquire agreed to publish monthly pieces and Herr left for Vietnam 1967, just two months before the Tet Offensive. After covering the entire theater of the war by hitching harrowing rides on military helicopters, Herr returned home and found himself suffering from severe depression and began to write:
“In the months after I got back the hundred of helicopters I'd flown in began to draw together until they'd formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other, fuel, heat, vitality and death, death itself, hardly an intruder.”
Despite the surreal feeling of immediacy in “Dispatches,” Herr composed the book after his return home. Perhaps writing was his way to deal with the burden of his war memories. Early in “Dispatches,” Herr writes about the mental and emotional processing of war:
“I went to cover the war and the war covered me . . . I went there on the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything . . . it took the war to teach it, that you were responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. The problem was that you didn't know what you were seeing until later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed there stored in your eyes. Time and information, rock and roll, life itself, the information isn't frozen, you are.”
Ever since the publication of “Dispatches,” writers and journalists from Robert Stone to Hunter S. Thompson to John Le Carré have admired Herr's work. War journalists, like Dexter Filkins, author of “The Forever War” on the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, have looked to Herr's work as a guiding example and an inspiration on how improve war reporting. Herr's work left its mark on film, with his writing contribution to Francis Ford Coppola's “Apocolyse Now” (1979). Regarded as one of the most crucial books on the Vietnam war, “Dispatches” is sought after by book collectors as a first edition, rarely signed, in its plain brown dust jacket with gold lettering. Michael Herr died on June 23, 2016 at the age of seventy-six.
Written by Lisa Newman