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What Michael Herr Meant to Me

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On Dispatches, mentors, and writing about war

Flickr/micadew

By Neil Shea

July 8, 2016


 

On a bright morning in June 2013, I squatted in a borrowed office at Sewanee, the University of the South, scribbling out lesson plans for a workshop in nonfiction writing that I felt only thinly qualified to teach. Above me loomed a large bookcase lined with classics of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and criticism, anthologies and dictionaries—a wall of words that reminded me daily of how much I had not read. At my elbow, amid the squall of papers ranged across my desk was a paperback copy of Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

Herr’s account of his years covering the war in Vietnam was one of several I’d assigned for the workshop that summer. I had been so thrilled to reread it and discuss it with my students that I’d written to Herr, who died last month at the age of 76, to see if he might speak with me. I knew it was a long shot. In the years following the 1977 publication of Dispatches, Herr rarely granted interviews, making clear again and again that Vietnam no longer interested him. He did not distance himself from the work so much as he refused to revisit its territory, declining to be pulled into the life, separate and surreal, that the book had achieved on its own. And yet the best piece of writing advice I ever received, and that I often recycle, is to Just do it, whatever it is, and so with Herr I had. Herr’s publisher agreed to forward the short note I’d written, while warning me that “Michael says no to everything.”

A month passed. By that June morning in my office, I had given up hope of a response and was staring at the bookshelf, wondering what new thing I could possibly say about Dispatches, when my mobile phone rang. The caller ID said Oneonta, New York. I didn’t know anyone in that part of the state and normally I would have ignored the call. When I answered, it was Herr. His voice was warm and soft, a slight sibilance, a deep calm. I realized I had never heard him speak.


I first read Dispatches in Iraq in 2006, while reporting a story for National Geographic. I had never covered war and had somehow argued my way into the job for a magazine that seemed to exist in a parallel world where such events almost never occurred. I’d arrived at the airport in Baghdad without a visa but carrying a copy of a recent issue in case anyone wanted proof beyond my passport and letter of assignment. Iraqi customs officials joked that I was too late—Saddam had killed all the wildlife: there was nothing left for National Geographic to see. For some reason I then showed them the magazine, which that month featured a cover photograph of a young man and woman holding each other in a red-lit club with the word “Love” sprawling beside them in large red letters. The woman was pretty, her arm bare and slender around the man. The Iraqis grabbed it, giggling, and shoved it into a drawer. They thought I was offering porn.

A couple of weeks after my arrival, the war took a desperate turn, when in late February, the al-Askari mosque at Samarra was destroyed in a bomb blast. For many Shia this was the final, unforgivable crime in the stream of violence that followed the American invasion. A brutal civil war would come next. But in the strange haze of before, I spent days bored and trapped inside the Green Zone, waiting to begin my embed with U.S. troops. I met with press officers, drove along the thick green Tigris, wandered the abandoned mansions of the Baathist elite. In grand and empty ballrooms, I left bootprints in thick carpets of dust, and I learned what happened outside the Zone, in Baghdad, mostly by the sound of distant explosions and rifle fire. Each morning and evening, I was escorted to meals by soldiers more bored than I was. Each day they said my embed would begin soon. The only book I’d brought was Dispatches.

For years I’d been reluctant to read it. The book hangs over every war story told since Vietnam and has never been equaled. Even the word “dispatch” was so transformed by Herr’s work that it couldn’t be used without implication, or supplication. Dispatches was heavy. When you’re a young writer, you think about such weight. You want to learn from it, leverage it, without being crushed. I remember opening the book at a picnic table outside the old parking garage where reporters were kept. In a tower nearby, soldiers from the Georgian republic stood watch, shadows behind dark glass. Overhead, a camouflage net scattered sunlight into hot little fragments. My copy of Dispatches was a first edition, its spine warped, its paper cover flaking like birch bark. I opened it, and very suddenly, there was no room to breathe. I was crushed from page one.


Few soldiers or Marines I met in Iraq had read the book. Many of them knew Dispatches, but they insisted that Iraq was not Vietnam. Their protests revealed how Herr’s wisdom, and that of his generation, had been lost. This became apparent to me one day at a press conference. I attended out of boredom and despair—being there meant I was not somewhere else. The war was slipping past in the distance, and Herr had given me to know that nothing could ever be learned at a media show. The room was large and beige in the way of any official nowhere, with rows of chairs flanking a long aisle. A flock of reporters had taken seats to the right, near the podium at the front of the room. I hung back to the left and sat beside a solitary figure, an older man with a high forehead and long, thinning hair. He was Peter Arnett, a legendary war correspondent who had covered Vietnam. We chatted for a while, and then he noticed I was carrying Dispatches. He told me he and Herr had been friends.

“It’s a wonderful book,” he said. “But you know he made a lot of it up.”

I did not, and was crushed again. “How do you know?” I blurted.

He laughed. A certain patience in it.

“Because I was there.”

The press conference began. A brigadier general described the mission, which did not yet recognize the gathering civil war. He provided some statistics, employed the phrase “kinetic operations,” and announced the number of civilians who had been killed recently by U.S. forces. The general then handed it over to a junior man, who said all Iraqi deaths would be investigated and the results shared with the public. He opened the floor to questions. If you had one, you raised your hand. If you were chosen, you said your name, followed by the name of your employer. Arnett lifted an arm.

“Peter Arnett,” he said. “Playboy.”

All the other reporters turned and stared. Arnett grinned. I’ve forgotten what he said. It must have been more a riddle than a question, for back then he seemed to me a kind of unwitting bodhisattva—a man who’d already seen everything, more than the general and his staff could imagine, and who now lingered on this ridiculous plane only to help the rest of us discover the true path.

Later, I asked several times for the results of the investigations into civilian deaths. Nothing ever came of it. Herr had written, “There’s nothing so embarrassing as when things go wrong in a war.”


Arnett’s revelation shook me. It’s true that I might have researched the book before I read it and learned of Herr’s alleged use of invented material. But what’s the fun in meeting an author on the field of his work if you set out unbelieving from the start? Many young writers seek mentors, and in this I had always underachieved. I never became someone’s protégé. I was too self-conscious, too stubborn. And so books, including Herr’s, had become the voices whispering at my shoulder. But which parts had he made up? Which scenes were real, which men never lived, or never died? I wanted him to tell me. I wanted to know how he’d made his choices.

Eventually I understood that all the lessons were there, in the writing. Through them, Herr helped me learn to see, and slowly, on every mission, during every flight and firefight, in all the surgeries and beside each dead grunt or civilian, I came to know—how absurd it was, and heroic, and tragic. I saw what people will do, and how I would react. I learned to look for every detail and listen for all the words. Herr showed me that war was a kind of weather, always out there, always approaching. Looking directly at it told you very little about what might come. You tried to prepare with your coat and your armor and your notebooks, and then you tried to describe it using the same few signs as everyone else. You couldn’t write about war itself; you wrote about people getting ready and then going out to deal with it.

In the end it was not death that nearly broke me but helplessness. A few months later, at the end of an embed during which I had been blown up by an IED, I lay on a bunk in the Baghdad parking garage listening to the squeak of an overhead fan. I was fine, fine, fine, nothing but a long headache and a Guns N’ Roses song that had, at the moment of the detonation, been punched into my head. But soon the squeaking drowned out the song. Eeek, eeek, eeek — eeek eeek eeek. All night that frantic little chirp, a hot little chisel behind the eyes. I was so exhausted and sad that I didn’t resist but fell into miserable surrender.

When first light slid into the room, I finally searched for the fan. There was no fan. I followed the noise not up but down, beneath my bunk, and there on the floor below my pillow was a mouse, caught in a glue trap. It lived, and was stuck fast: tail, ears, feet, legs, one eye, and nearly every hair on its body rolled in yellow glue. It cried as I reached down, a sound of terror and pleading, the free eye wide and wet and black. There was nothing to do. Pulling it loose meant peeling it open. I couldn’t bring myself to smash its skull, so I laid the mouse back on the floor, near a tiny mound of its own shit, and mentioned it to a soldier. My eyes were burning. I couldn’t face him as I spoke.

He shrugged.

“Leave it to the Iraqis,” he said. “They’ll take care of it.”

Not cold, just honest. He knew everything right then, how it would all turn out—the war, the country, the future, everything. Herr had been right about that: all the little pieces reflecting one big truth.


In my office at Sewanee, I was so unbalanced by Herr’s phone call that I knocked a bottle of water across the desk and soaked my lesson plans. I brushed the sodden papers away with one hand, and with the other flipped open my computer. There was no question—I would write this down. So rarely do the gods appear. 

“I was very touched by your note and request,” he said. “I really hate to refuse you.”

“Of course,” I said, witless. “It’s fine.”

He gave a small, shy laugh and said he usually didn’t respond to interview requests. But my note had made him want to call. Then we began talking, and he kept talking, so I did too. I mentioned my brush with Arnett, and Herr remembered him fondly. Arnett had been generous, and prescient. Herr said he saw the Tet Offensive coming months away, and it made me wonder if Arnett, the bodhisattva, had seen the sectarian civil war coming in Iraq. I told Herr how Arnett cautioned me about Dispatches, told me not to believe everything I read. He laughed again, a soft confidential sound.

“I didn’t make things up,” he said. “I do remember getting drunk once at a party and telling some people I made it all up. I did take some liberties. I did some telescoping, compressed time. And in some cases I put myself in places where I hadn’t actually been. But at the time, there were reasons for that.”

He said, “I took quite a few years to give myself permission to write that book the way I did.”

The man sounded content, but I felt as though I were keeping him, as I often do on the phone, with anyone. Within a short while, I excused myself and thanked him. He said once more that he was grateful for my note, and he hung up.

I sat there a few moments, dazed. Then a voice at my shoulder said, What are you doing! I swiped open the phone and called him back.

We talked for a while longer. He told me of his struggle toward permission—into the peace of mind or under the pressure of soul that had finally allowed him stillness enough to sit down and finish the book. He said he’d never trained as a journalist and was skeptical of the New Journalism—“this thing in the air back when I was writing.” Later he would be pulled into that crowd, but he never returned the embrace. He said he felt distant, standing apart from the strange little literary era.

“There is something about that book that makes it different from any other book about the war, and to be honest, I don’t think about that, about why that is,” he said. “I feel like I paid my dues to that time and place. Finally, it’s the writers, the only ones who really know how good it is, or how bad it is, they’re the ones who decide.”

I was two years old when Dispatches was published. It would take almost 30 years and another war for me to find it, though now I cannot quite imagine ever being without the book.

“Do you think about it much, all these years after?” I said, meaning the war.

“I’m a don’t-look-back kind of guy,” he said. “You know?”

And so we stopped looking back and talked of other things. He asked about my teaching. He told me he’d been teaching some, too. A bit of writing. The youngest of his students was seven. He said he enjoyed it. He said, “If you’re ever in the neighborhood, come by.”


Neil Shea is a Scholar contributing editor. He is also a regular contributor to National Geographic, where he has written about conflict and cultural change in East Africa. His Afghanistan reports for the Scholar include “So This Is Paktya” (Summer 2010) and “A Gathering Menace” (Spring 2012). Follow him on Instagram at @neilshea13.


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