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Remembering Michael Herr, Unparalleled Chronicler of Vietnam

In “First Kill,” a 2001 Dutch documentary film, Michael Herr, who died on June 23 at age 76, reflected on his unlikely fame as author of the novelized memoir “Dispatches” and co-screenwriter of the films “Full Metal Jacket” and “Apocalypse Now,” all about the Vietnam War:

“I’m a nice middle class Jewish boy. I’m not John Wayne, Junior. I’m not a blood and guts guy. I just had a very strong attraction to war…I was satisfied. That was something I felt I didn’t have to do again. I saw it for a year and that was really enough. Probably too much. If I’d been at all smart, I probably would have left after the first operation.”

Stick-to-itiveness was a hallmark of Herr’s journalistic power in the strongly colloquial, sometimes heavily Hemingwayesque narrative style of “Dispatches.” Like a bullfight fan or film director celebrating the cinematic dynamism of deadly conflict, Herr alluded to the celebratory, ceremonial aspects of war: “Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods,” he wrote. Herr also explored the war’s overtly erotic thrill for some, with combat helicopters the “sexiest thing going.” This exultation found onscreen correspondence in helicopters arriving while Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” blared in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” as well as some of Stanley Kubrick’s more exuberant visual poeticizations of violence.

In an affectionate 2000 memoir of Kubrick, possibly intended as a contradiction of a negative and uncomprehending reminiscence by Frederic Raphael, another Jewish screenwriter who had worked with Kubrick, Herr presented a tolerant view of the director. Faults Kubrick had, but Herr mostly seemed amused by them, as when he recounts how his agent was outraged by the tiny payment proposed for writing “Full Metal Jacket”:

“Rendered almost inarticulate by representational indignation, [the agent] taunted, ‘Little Stanley Kubrick wants his Bar Mitzvah money’ (a Jewish man talking to a Jewish man about another Jewish man), adding, ‘And it isn’t even his money!,’ obviously impressed, as we all were, by the nerve of the guy.”

Throughout, whereas Raphael had summarily dismissed Kubrick as a “self-hating Jew,” Herr drew closer to his subject, portraying him in a more plausible human light:

“In Vincent LoBrutto’s biography Stanley Kubrick, there’s a photograph of this socially challenged, academically reviled phenom, taken when he was 12 or 13, around the time he would have been Bar Mitzvahed, if he’d been Bar Mitzvahed, like a normal person. As a piece of evidence in some kind of Citizen Kane scavenger hunt to establish the character of a legend, it’s convincing in suggesting how this possibly dweeb-like little Jewish kid from the Bronx came to identify so intimately yet so appropriately with Napoleon.”

Observing that “Stanley never was one of those middle-class American Jewish men who are afraid of success,” Herr even managed to make understandable a dubious relish for racist jokes in the great director:

“Hey Michael, what’s the American Dream?”

“I give up.”

“Ten million blacks swimming to Africa, with a Jew under each arm.”

To which he added, “Don’t worry, Michael. They don’t mean us.”

While mulling over the possibility of adapting Raul Hilberg’s “The Destruction of the European Jews,” with Kubrick, a project that was never realized, Herr noted that the director would marvel that a studio head bragged about being the first Jew ever admitted to his New York apartment building – as late as 1999. Herr informed readers that Kubrick was likewise astonished by Holland’s Ajax football team which once had a Jewish player, so that Dutch skinheads “would go to all the team’s matches and make a loud hissing noise, meant to represent the sound of gas escaping into the death chambers. ‘And that’s Holland, Michael. A civilized country.’ Laughing.”

Wondering at evil through a specifically Jewish perspective was also part of other Herr projects, including “Walter Winchell,” (1990) an abortive screenplay turned into a novel about the often-toxic columnist and radio broadcaster of Russian Jewish origin. Earlier, “Big Room,” (1987) was a volume with illustrations by the Belgian rock album artist Guy Peellaert, who had Nazified the Rolling Stones in visuals for glamor and profit. “The Big Room” celebrated founding myths about Las Vegas, with such Jewish gangsters as Arnold Rothstein, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, and Meyer Lansky prominently featured.

Although Herr’s published output remained modest, he kept active as a Hollywood script doctor, and increasingly devoted time and money to Tibetan Buddhism. Based in Delhi, New York after a long sojourn in London, he edited such texts as “Wisdom Nectar: Dudjom Rinpoche’s Heart Advice”. No starry-eyed cliché of a JewBu, Herr also participated in conflicts within Tibetan Buddhism, and in 1998 addressed an open letter to the editor of “Tricycle: The Buddhist Review” which he felt had unjustly criticized his mentors Dudjom Rinpoche and his son Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. The latter had founded Kunzang Gatshal, Always Noble Joyful Park, situated in the same upstate New York village where Herr had chosen to reside, not coincidentally.

For Herr, Buddhist meditation was a way of cleansing himself of the Vietnam tragedy and the celebratory aspects which struck him decades before, in his youth. He would speak to visitors in a cigarette-toughened, sibilant, jittery baritone about how his piety was an antidote to what he called “Nihilist-mind.”

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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