Remembering Michael Herr, Whose 'Dispatches' Brought The War In Vietnam Home
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "APOCALYPSE NOW")
MARTIN SHEEN: (As Captain Ben Willard) I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn't even know it yet. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable. Plugged this straight into Kurtz.
GROSS: Martin Sheen's voiceover narration in the film "Apocalypse Now" was written by Michael Herr, who died last Thursday at the age of 76. Herr also co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam War film "Full Metal Jacket." Herr went to Vietnam in 1967 to report on the war for Esquire and to write a book. He stayed over a year, but he didn't publish the book until 1977, a couple of years after the war had ended. "Dispatches," his hybrid of memoir and fiction, was hailed as one of the most important books about the war describing the experiences of disillusioned young American soldiers there.
We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with Michael Herr in 1990. He told me why he had wanted to write about the war.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
MICHAEL HERR: You know, I'm a writer so I have a prejudice. You know, I mean, I went to Vietnam in the first place because the assumption that this was television's war and that was the medium that was going to tell the story. And I believed it wasn't telling the story that it required writing to tell the story. So I don't know, there sure are a lot of Vietnam films. But very few of them have moved me.
GROSS: Do you make a point of seeing all the movies about Vietnam...
GROSS: ...And reading all the books that come out?
HERR: ...I make a point of not seeing any of them.
HERR: The subject. I can't tell you how the subject has come to - you know, there's a kind of overload, you know? And that comes with the book as well. You know, and that goes for the books as well. That's - I'm not obsessed with Vietnam, you know? There are other things that interest me a great deal more. It was a long time ago. I put in a lot of time. I paid a lot of dues. I don't want to keep going back and opening those wounds all over again.
GROSS: Is that one of the reasons why you moved to England, so that you could get to get away from the culture of the war?
HERR: That's - yeah, that did have a lot to do with it and a great deal to do with it. And - to get away from and to get away from the sort of persistence of popularity of that book, the peculiar kind of popularity it had.
GROSS: What do you mean peculiar?
HERR: It was intensely felt. You know, people felt strongly about it.
GROSS: Phone calls, letters?
HERR: Yeah, yeah. And it was...
GROSS: Upsetting ones?
HERR: Frequently, yes.
GROSS: What would be upsetting about that contact?
HERR: People calling you up and spilling your guts on the phone or letters from widows and orphans and, you know, sisters of guys killed in Vietnam, veterans with more problems than they could even begin to deal with. And assuming that I could be of help when in fact I couldn't.
GROSS: You know, in "Dispatches," you wrote that...
GROSS: Whenever you were asked - why did you go to Vietnam ? - you'd say blah, blah, blah, report on the war...
GROSS: ...Blah, blah, blah, write a book, as if you were maybe not completely sure yourself (laughter). Now that, like, years and years have gone by, are there reasons that you understand more now than you did then...
GROSS: ...About why you went?
HERR: Sure. I mean, I think, in many ways, I went for the same reasons that a lot of teenage American kids went, you know. I mean, I was older than they were, better educated than they were, let's say, more sophisticated than they were. But in certain ways, our motives for going there were the same.
GROSS: Which motives are you thinking of?
HERR: Well, this is tough to break down. But it has to do with a certain - out ritual American passage, courage, testing yourself, going to see it, going to someplace really terrible to look at it, look into it.
GROSS: You said that when you went to Vietnam, you were on a different frequency from the rest of the journalists who were there. What were you looking for that was different from what they were looking for?
HERR: Well, what I like to think of is the long view, you know. I mean, I was looking for internal voices. I was looking for - I wasn't there for news stories, to write the war story, to write about the day-to-day current events of the war. I was there to write the sort of - the formal story of the war.
GROSS: When you were traveling with troops, what did you do during battles - during fighting?
HERR: Normally, I got as close to the ground as I possibly could with my head down. There were one or two occasions where there was no choice but to take a weapon.
GROSS: So you didn't carry a weapon with you?
HERR: No, not normally. It was, you know - it was considered a sort of a breach of conduct for a journalist to carry a weapon.
GROSS: Did you ever feel that the soldiers felt that they had to protect you as a journalist?
HERR: I don't know how they felt about it. But I felt that they had to protect me. I mean, it's a point I go into in the book, where, in effect, they were my guns, you know. They were my armed escort. And it left me with a feeling of enormous obligation to tell a certain kind of truth about what they were going through.
GROSS: "Dispatches" and "Apocalypse Now" were, I think, in terms of, like, American literary and film culture, the first book and movie to really make the connection between the war in Vietnam and rock music as the constant soundtrack. When did you start to realize the role that rock music had in people's lives who were fighting the war? I mean, I can think of a scene in the beginning of "Dispatches" where you're talking about how people, like, took off their ponchos and the smell of, like, festering flesh...
HERR: Well, I mean...
GROSS: ...Came across the air. And you're hearing Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs singing "Little Red Riding Hood."
HERR: You didn't really have to be an astute social commentator, you know. I mean, it didn't require a Tom Wolfe eye and ear because every place you went, there were guys with transistor radios or cassette players. And it was as though, you know, the Vietnam War had been scored by Motown and Phil Spector and The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. And there was a way in which I came to feel that the war and the music were both coming from the same fountain, you know? The same impulses in the culture that were in the air were manifesting in this place together of violence and a kind of beauty all at the same time.
GROSS: Are there records that will set you up thinking about Vietnam when you still hear them now?
HERR: Only if I hear them by accident. You know, if I programmed a piece of music, it wouldn't have any effect on me. If I'm driving around in the car and a piece of music comes on, you're going like a rocket, you know? You have no time to defend yourself against that connection. And then it can remind you.
GROSS: Which records do that to you?
HERR: Anything by Jimi Hendrix will do it, you know?
GROSS: I think it took around 10 years for "Dispatches" to be published after you returned.
HERR: Well, it took about nine years. That's because it took about eight years to write it.
GROSS: How come it took so long?
HERR: That's a long story, you know? It just took a long time. It took what it took, you know? I was afraid to finish the book.
HERR: I don't know. I don't know. It was some obsessive retentive - you know, I had some very private, intimate business to go through before I could let that book go.
GROSS: And is that why you felt so strongly maybe too about putting it behind you once it was done?
HERR: That's right. That's right. It's still awkward for me to talk about it.
GROSS: Right. Well, listen, I appreciate your having talked about it...
HERR: Oh, it's OK. That's cool, you know.
GROSS: We're listening to a 1990 interview with writer Michael Herr. He died Thursday at the age of 76. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the 1990 interview I recorded with Michael Herr, who died last Thursday. He wrote "Dispatches," the 1977 now classic book about the Vietnam War. He wrote the voiceover narration for "Apocalypse Now" and co-wrote the film "Full Metal Jacket."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: You once said that you modeled your early life on Hemingway?
HERR: Well, I mean, that's complicated. But he certainly was a major inspiration for a long time through my adolescence.
GROSS: What effect did he have on how you lived your life?
HERR: I think he had a lot to do with my going to Vietnam, you know? I think I bought that sort of public version of who he was.
GROSS: And where did that lead you besides Vietnam?
HERR: It led me into a kind of a protracted state of breakdown where I was required to rummage through these various pieces and determine for myself what I believed and what I didn't believe. You know, that the after effects of that kind of behavior are not particularly healthy or wholesome or conducive to making good art.
GROSS: So did you have to figure out, like, how much of your life you were leading in some kind of pose?
HERR: Sure, sure. The kind of, you know, it's really the kind of question that rarely comes up in my life anymore except in the course of interviews, you know?
GROSS: Right (laughter).
HERR: You know, where you're suddenly chiding your - you know, in a public way, honking, you know.
GROSS: Right, and taking your temperature all in time, yeah (laughter).
HERR: Exactly, your pulse, you know, and how am I doing, you know? And...
GROSS: (Laughter) Well, one more of those questions. Was this whole sense of, you know, like, was this a pose or not, did that come after you returned from Vietnam?
HERR: Yeah, it came about 18 months after I returned because I came back high. You know, I came back not only feeling a kind of survivor's exultation, but with really a very underdeveloped sense of what I'd really just been through and with a kind of horrible glamour value among my crowd in New York City because none of the people I knew in New York even knew anyone who had been to Vietnam.
Everyone was talking about it and thinking about it and trying to locate their feelings about it. But it happened that among, you know, 50 or 60 people in New York, I was the only one who had actually been there.
GROSS: What changed after the 18 months?
HERR: Well, friends of mine began dying in Vietnam. I began to unfreeze certain feelings that had remained frozen from the day I arrived in Vietnam. And I began to make a kind of life or death search for the language to write this book in.
GROSS: You know, in some ways, I think this badge has helped define what the language would be in the future to describe Vietnam. And it was one of the first books that really had a big impact. I mean, for years, as we all remember, there weren't many books or movies that really came to terms with the war...
HERR: But, you know, it's - I mean, it's very strange what happens and how things work because there's a guy sitting alone at a desk with his head in his hands for, you know, from 4 to 6 hours a day living this isolated, intensely private, inwardly directed life. And the product of that penance, almost, you know, that sentence that you're serving comes out and it causes certain ripples in the culture.
That's wonderful, but that has nothing to do with the guy sitting at the desk, you know? It's out of his hands, beyond his control and is, in a way, absolutely not personal. You know what I mean?
GROSS: I think I know what you mean.
HERR: You know, it's like you perform this act and people then define it and try to make you subscribe to their definition.
GROSS: I see what you mean (laughter).
HERR: And it's...
HERR: It doesn't really work, you know?
GROSS: Well, I wanted to thank you a lot for talking with us.
HERR: Oh, you're welcome.
GROSS: Michael Herr recorded in 1990. He died Thursday at the age of 76. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, how the FBI identifies and tracks those on their terrorism watch list and why the killer in the Orlando nightclub massacre had been taken off the list. We talk of Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story of the NSA's wiretapping program. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER")
JIMI HENDRIX: (Singing) There must be some kind of way out of here, said the joker to the thief. There's too much confusion. I can't get no relief. Business men, they drink my wine. Plowman dig my earth. None were level on the mind. Nobody up at his word. Hey, hey.
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.