Michael Herr’s Delhi

Delhi, NY [Photo: George Cassidy Payne]

George Cassidy Payne

Michael David Herr (April 13, 1940 – June 23, 2016) was an American writer and war journalist best known as the author of Dispatches (1977), a memoir of his time as a correspondent for Esquire Magazine (1967–1969) during the Vietnam War.  Novelist John le Carre called it “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.”

Dispatches was not your run of the mill memoir. Along with his fellow writers working in the “New Journalism” style-titans such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Thomas Wolf, Herr developed a way to tell the story of the war without relying solely on autobiographical impressions, historical facts, and chronological order. In Herr’s words, “A lot of Dispatches is fictional. I’ve said this a lot of times. I have told people over the years that there are fictional aspects to Dispatches, and they look betrayed. They look heartbroken, as if it isn’t true anymore. I never thought of Dispatches as journalism. In France they published it as a novel…. I always carried a notebook. I had this idea—I remember endlessly writing down dialogues. It was all I was really there to do. Very few lines were literally invented. A lot of lines are put into mouths of composite characters. Sometimes I tell a story as if I was present when I wasn’t, (which wasn’t difficult)—I was so immersed in that talk, so full of it and so steeped in it. A lot of the journalistic stuff I got wrong.”

Michael Herr

When I read Dispatches for the first time a few years ago, the book had an instantaneous effect on my understanding of soldiers in battle. In Herr’s book, warfare is not just a collection of names, ranks, strategies, battles, politics and slogans. War is an experience that changes minds. War is slaughter and salvation. War is innocence lost and wisdom gained. War is cold blooded murder and the warmest act of mercy. War is impossible to forget and too easy to remember. War haunts the past and redeems the future. War is madness. In all of its contradictions, war drives people insane until they can find a reason for being rational again. On every level, Dispatches is a monumental achievement, one that nearly drove its author into a total nervous breakdown.

Recently, on a literary field trip across the heart of Upstate New York, I learned more about Herr. Stopping in Delhi on the way to John Burroughs’ Memorial Site, I discovered that not only is Herr the author of Dispatches, he also contributed to the narration for Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now (1979). Those trance like scenes with Captain Willard meditating on the nightmare of Vietnam are about as autobiographical as anything Herr ever wrote. Not only that, Herr also co-wrote the screenplay for the film Full Metal Jacket (1987) with director Stanley Kubrick.

As a fan of both movies, I found this information tantalizing. But even more interesting to me personally is that Herr moved to Delhi, NY, a quaint, sleepy village in Delaware County. Delhi is of importance to me because that is where my mother was raised. I actually lived there for the first few years of my life before our family packed up and headed northwest across the state to Lewis County.

In honor of Herr’s years in Delhi, the photo montage below captures an assortment of scenes from present day Delhi, which is to say, scenes from the way Delhi has always looked and will always look. That’s probably why Herr picked this place to retire from the public spotlight. As he once wrote, “I don’t know if there’s any other level on which catharsis is possible — other than doing it alone, and quietly.” In Delhi, Herr was left alone. After the horror of ‘Nam, that’s all he ever truly wanted. Michael Herr died on June 23 at the age of 76.

Photography by George Cassidy Payne


According to the Washington Post obituary, Herr entered Syracuse University and wrote for the college literary magazine, which was edited by Joyce Carol Oates, but he dropped out, “driven by a wanderlust he attributed to his idolization of Ernest Hemingway and other authors who drank and smoked their way across the globe.”

“I wrote most of Dispatches in 18 months–everything but the first and last chapter. I had a great 18 months working and playing. A great time. I was really sort of high from that experience, and I sort of re-entered the scene in New York where everyone was talking about the war, everyone was obsessed with the war, but no one had been to the war and didn’t even know anyone who had been to the war, and it gave me a certain amount of glamour, and I was high on that.” MH

My grandfather worked in this building as an officer with the Delhi Police. He was also a well respected guidance counselor and mathematics teacher at Delhi Academy.

Every small town in America has a statue like this. You know you are driving through an American village when you see a court house, high school, church, and Civil War monument.

I spent the first few years of my life in this house.

He returned to the United States in 1990 and relished his anonymity. He found it grotesque when TV producers rang up with lucrative offers to revisit Vietnam on camera. “I do believe it’s OK to have been there — to have seen it, to have participated in it,” he told the Globe. “I wish people didn’t have to suffer for 20 years for what happened there. Just in the way that I wish that all the people who remember it would forget it, I wish all the people who’ve forgotten it would remember it — if they could just change places. And all those guys could move that rock off their chests.”

“I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good. You don’t know what a media freak is until you’ve seen the way a few of those grunts would run around during a fight when they knew that there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guts-and-glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks. They were insane, but the war hadn’t done that to them. Most combat troops stopped thinking of the war as an adventure after their first few firefights, but there were always the ones who couldn’t let that go, these few who were up there doing numbers for the cameras… We’d all seen too many movies, stayed too long in Television City, years of media glut had made certain connections difficult.” ― Michael Herr, Dispatches

SEE ALSO

Return to Woodchuck Lodge: Rediscovering John Burroughs for the First Time

Wit and Repartee at Woodlawn: A Secular Pilgrimage to Mark Twain’s Gravesite in Elmira, NY.