Michael Herr, author of the Vietnam-era 'Dispatches,' dies

AP News
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Posted: Jun 24, 2016 4:24 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Michael Herr, the author and Oscar-nominated screenplay writer who viscerally documented the ravages of the Vietnam War through his classic nonfiction novel "Dispatches" and through such films as "Apocalypse Now" and "Full Metal Jacket," died Thursday after a long illness. He was 76.

His death in an upstate New York hospital was confirmed by publisher Alfred A. Knopf, which released "Dispatches" in 1977, two years after the U.S. left Vietnam.

A native of Syracuse, New York, and graduate of Syracuse University, Herr was part of the part of the New Journalism wave that included Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer and advocated applying literary style and techniques to traditional reporting. "Dispatches" is often ranked with Tim O'Brien's novel "The Things They Carried," Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam: A History" and a handful of other works as essential reading about the war.

"If you think you don't want to read any more about Vietnam, you are wrong," critic John Leonard of The New York Times wrote when the book came out.

"'Dispatches' is beyond politics, beyond rhetoric, beyond "pacification" and body counts and the 'psychotic vaudeville' of Saigon press briefings. Its materials are fear and death, hallucination and the burning of souls. It is as if Dante had gone to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocketful of pills: our first rock-and-roll war, stoned murder."

The book's origins date to 1967 when Herr convinced Esquire magazine editor Harold Hayes to let him travel to Vietnam and write a monthly column. He ended up staying more than a year, producing few columns at the time, but gathering the material for what became "Dispatches," profane, impassioned and knowing reports that helped capture a generation's sense of outrage and disillusion.

"I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by 17 years of war movies before coming to Vietnam and getting wiped out for good," he wrote in a chapter prefaced with lyrics from a Bob Dylan song.

"You don't know a media freak is until you've seen the way a few of these grunts would run around during a fight when they knew there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guys and glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot for the networks."

While continuing to write for magazines after "Dispatches," Herr also began a career in movies. He helped write the voiceover narration for Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket." Herr later wrote a book about Kubrick, one of the industry's most reclusive directors.

His other books included "Walter Winchell," a 1990 novel about the powerful and irascible gossip columnist.

He is survived by his wife, Valerie; daughters Catherine and Claudia, and siblings Steven Herr and Judy Bleyer.