Best Defense

Annals of war correspondence: Michael Herr is dead — and I don’t feel too good

Any “war correspondent” of the last 15 years would be a liar if he or she didn’t claim some influence from Michael Herr.



By Nathan Webster
Best Defense obituaries bureau chief

Any “war correspondent” of the last 15 years would be a liar if he or she didn’t claim some influence from Michael Herr’s Dispatches in their coverage of Iraq or Afghanistan, and I am no different.

Iraq may have lacked the jungle spookiness that permeated Herr’s writing, but the blank desert and horizonless cities had their own dark bleakness — the sand and the heat and the silence. The nature of “embedded” reporting put correspondents like myself into company and platoon-level environments, alongside the junior soldiers just like the ones Herr gave so much deserved attention too. Still, there was always an unspoken distance — we might have all been Americans, but in the close quarters of a joint security station, the “other” in the room was always me; it was best to not take liberties of the host.

I deliberately channeled Herr in the very first few moments of my 2007 arrival to Forward Operating Base Summerall, stepping off a Chinook, remembering a lesson he had thrown into his book: “I never let them dig my holes or carry my gear, there were always grunts who offered.”

At Summerall, the welcoming captain offered to take my duffel bag — but then I’m just the guy letting somebody else carry my load and I remembered what Herr had written. I packed it, I told him, I’ll hump it. And Summerall wasn’t the Bayji Joint Security Station, not by a long shot — nobody was offering to carry my bags out there. Out there, you better handle what you brought.

Or like another captain told me in Tarmiyah, a year later, when I dropped a lens cap on the lowered hatch of a Stryker in the middle of the night. How he saw even saw the black disk, I have no idea. “Hold on to your shit,” he said.

Herr had taught me, and I always tried to remember — the soldiers are your guns, never your porter.

Until the last 2007 day — away from the Bayji JSS, safely back on the FOB ready to head home — and a lieutenant that I liked saw me sucking, finally struggling with duffel bags that suddenly felt so heavy. He didn’t ask, he just picked one up and kept walking. It made me cry.

Herr was also dead on about the difference between a forward operating base and a joint security station — like he said about a Vietnam firebase where the grunts had taken 60 percent casualties and it was all falling apart: “It was no place where I’d have to tell anyone not to call me ‘Sir.’”

FOB, JSS, Firebase, even grunt — words already outdated. Dispatches is a period piece — but then, now so is reading my own Iraq reporting. Even with soldiers still in Afghanistan, or back in Iraq again. What’s a FOB? A T-Wall? A JSS? The language of a war is like a fire — it flares intensely, and then it burns into ash and blows away.

And Herr was right — the soldiers never hated me, or probably any correspondent, “not even when I was leaving.” I had been in their boots as a young soldier in Desert Storm. So I knew it was never personal.

I had first arrived to Iraq in 1991, and I marked the last moment that I went wheels up out of Baghdad — June 19, 2009. Seven years ago, and there’s no way I should still think about it today.

The Tarmiyah sheikh whose house I had dinner in — blown up, three sons dead. The Bayji JSS, in line of the oil refinery’s constant flare, in the city’s strange and beautiful morning horizon — all destroyed in the ISIS struggle. Chris Cates, the very last soldier I talked to at COP Carver in Salman Pak, a funny guy like Herr’s Mayhew, one of my favorites — dead in a house fire, back at home. Everything I invested in, burned away.

I would take it all back. I don’t want to write about it anymore, even though I’m sure I will. I wish I could sit at home and yell at the TV and complain from benign ignorance and say “well, this is how I’d do it.”

I so wish I didn’t care.

Among Michael’s Herr final lines — “The war ended then it really ended. I watched the choppers that I loved dropping into the South China Sea… and one last chopper revved it up, lifted off and flew out of my chest.”

It can be mistaken for nostalgia, but he’s writing about heartbreak — and the choice we make when we decide to invest in something. I had a choice just like Herr — I wasn’t in the Army, nobody paid my way or bought my gear. Just like Herr, every choice was all my own and it was quite the adventure, but the adventure didn’t end just because that’s what I wanted.

Go try to find a post-2003 interview with Herr and good work if you can — even amid wars full of embedded journalists and writers all using his work as a touchstone, his style was copied but never improved upon. Did he see it all happening again, all the ego and the death, and just say to himself, there’s no way I’m getting involved with this?

The past 15 years he could have offered his thoughts, his lessons, his perspective, his expertise, his knowledge. But he already did, of course, in 1977, and there was nothing else he needed to add.

Herr taught me not to let the soldiers carry my bags. Strip the rest away, and what else is there?

He did the hardest thing for any writer — the act I’m most deeply jealous of: to step away, and say with his now permanent silence, no, I don’t care anymore.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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