“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.
There are many quotable nuggets from Dispatches. “Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it,” is an oft-quoted favorite. “There’s nothing so embarrassing as when things go wrong in a war,” is another. These one-liners are clever. They’re quoted because they’re short and snappy, but they don’t reflect why Dispatches changed the way we talked about Vietnam. For a better sense of the book’s impact, consider this passage on the many ways a man could die:
You could die in a sudden bloodburning crunch as your chopper hit the ground like dead weight, you could fly apart so that your pieces would never be gathered, you could take one neat round in the lung and go out hearing only the bubble of the last few breaths, you could die in the last stage of malaria with that faint tapping in your ears, and that could happen to you after months of firefights and rockets and machine guns. Enough, too many, were saved for that, and you always hoped that no irony would attend your passing. You could end in a pit somewhere with a spike through you, everything stopped forever except for the one or two motions, purely involuntary, as though you could kick it all away and come back. You could fall down dead so that the medics would have to spend half an hour looking for the hole that killed you, getting more and more spooked as the search went on. You could be shot, mined, grenaded, rocketed, mortared, sniped at, blown up and away so that your leavings had to be dropped into a sagging poncho and carried to Graves Registration, that’s all she wrote. It was almost marvelous.