Herr, who never trained as a journalist, originally went to Vietnam for Esquire, but wrote only one story for the magazine during his time there. In his book, he vacillates between scared-out-of-his-bones humility and the occasional, arrogant conviction that, unlike some of the pretty-boy journalists, he was there for the right reasons.
“I could skip the daily briefings,” he recalls. Then he continues: “I honestly wanted to know what the form was for those interviews, but some of the reporters I’d ask would get very officious, saying something about ‘Command postures,’ and look at me as if I was insane. It was probably the kind of look that I gave one of them when he asked me once what I found to talk about with the grunts all the time, expecting me to confide (I think) that I found them as boring as he did.”
Other times, Herr sounds far less confident.
“There wasn’t a day when someone didn’t ask me what I was doing there,” he writes. What got him to Vietnam in the first place, he insists, was “the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn’t know, it took the war to teach it, that you were responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.”
It took about six years for Herr to write his book. He was candid about the reasons why in a 1992 interview with Eric James Schroeder in his book Vietnam, We’ve All Been There: Interviews with American Writers. (Schroeder lifted the first part of his title from the last line in Dispatches.)
“I was pretty crazy when I came back,” he told Schroeder. “For a long time I was, in fact, very crazy. Sometimes I was crazy in a very public way, and after I crashed I was crazy in a very private way. . . . I always believed that there was another door on the other side of me that I could go through and come out of with a book under my arm.”
He wrote the first and last chapters, then filled in the middle. It was not, he said, a book about the war. “If somebody were to ask me what it was about, I would say that the secret subject of Dispatches was not Vietnam, but that it was a book about writing a book,” Herr confessed. “I think that all good books are about writing.”
Three years after Dispatches was published, Herr moved to London, where he lived for more than a decade. His initial success seemed to have taken a toll on the author. When Paul Ciotti interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times in 1990, he described “one of the strangest careers of a contemporary American writer. [Herr] refused to grant interviews. He gave up his once-compulsive world travels and became a dedicated homebody and family man, trading drugs for Gauloises and acid rock for Mozart. He let his leisurely output slow to such a glacial pace that it looked as though he had fallen off the literary radar screen .”
Herr didn’t go completely silent. He wrote two more books: a novel about Walter Winchell in 1990, and a 15,000-word essay about Stanley Kubrick that morphed into a slim biography in 2000. But neither won even a fraction of the praise and attention that had been heaped on his debut.