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.”
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