On June 23, 2016, I was busy charging my camera batteries, cleaning my lenses, sorting out my memory cards and road-testing a new one, and packing my gear and clothes to be ready for the Cape Cod wedding of a cousin of mine. I entirely missed the passing of Michael Herr, whose 1977 book Dispatches put some of what people love to call “closure” on my terrible fear of the Vietnam War.
Of course, my fear of the war has never actually faded. In the 41 years since Saigon fell and my draft card became an artifact of history, I have simply learned to fashion the fear into something more like a fascination, or perhaps a reverence, albeit not entirely a healthy one – the mysterious form you know is following you along the dark street, but is always in a shadow when you muster the courage to turn to confront it.
And of course, there is no such thing as closure – beyond adaptation, accommodation, integration.
Michael David Herr was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on a mid-April Saturday in 1940. His family moved to New York when he was still an infant, he attended Syracuse University, and by the time he was 27, he was working as a correspondent for Esquire magazine during the peak military activity of the U.S. phase of the Vietnam War. In 1977, two years after the formal end of the war, and after Herr recovered from a debilitating depression related to his time in Vietnam, he published Dispatches, a memoir of his time in that war.
Journalist-extraordinaire Hunter S. Thompson said simply, “Dispatches puts the rest of us in the shade.”
For me, the book gathered, in language as stellar as Melville’s, all the personal drama of sliding closer and closer to the age of serving in a terrifying war, even as American involvement in the war was beginning to wind down. It became a kind of crap shoot to see which whether I would hit Old Enough first, or the war would hit Over before I got there.
“And at night it was beautiful. Even the incoming was beautiful at night, beautiful and deeply dreadful.
“I remembered the way a Phantom pilot had talked about how beautiful the surface-to-air missiles looked as they drifted up toward his plane to kill him, and remembered myself how lovely .50-caliber tracers could be, coming at you as you flew at night in a helicopter, how slow and graceful, arching up easily, a dream, so remote from anything that could harm you. It could make you feel a total serenity, an elevation that put you above death, but that never lasted very long. One hit anywhere in the chopper would bring you back, bitten lips, white knuckles and all, and then you knew where you were.”