“…it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.”
— Michael Herr
We lost two great writers last year: Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and author of Night, and journalist Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, a critically-acclaimed book he wrote about the Vietnam War.
It was Michael Herr’s choice to cover the war in Vietnam. Elie Wiesel had no choice but to be in Auschwitz. However, both writers bore witness (to paraphrase Herr) to the death spaces and the life they found inside. Both addressed the mystery of evil, but they also wrote about the mystery of the good.
I had the pleasure of meeting Elie Wiesel In the 1980s, when I was involved with the Sanctuary Movement. For several years, my church in San Rafael, California worked with some activist Dominican nuns who lived at a nearby convent. Together, we housed and protected refugees from El Salvador who had come to the United States to escape right wing death squads in their country.
Elie Weisel spoke at a Sanctuary conference in Northern California where I was asked to lead a workshop. I remember how touched I felt when some Native American Indians who lived some distance from us found out about our work, and sent a shell, and some herbs to burn, to help us prepare the room for dialogue.
After the conference, I talked to Elie Wiesel about the work we were doing with refugees. I told him that we were recording refugee testimonies, and doing all we could to protect the refugees from deportation. I left him with a copy of a television program we produced, “Through the Needle’s Eye,” that included refugee testimonies.
Someone once said that Elie Wiesel looked like Lazarus, the Biblical character that Jesus brought back from the dead. It was easy to imagine it, with his thick, unruly hair, and all the death he’d seen, still in his eyes. He’d lived through the worst, and it changed him, but it did not defeat him. He was the most concerned and serious person I’d ever met.
What I remember most from Elie Wiesel’s talk that weekend were his warnings about indifference. He told us what he’d said so many times during his life:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is
not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.”
In his talk, Wiesel said the worst thing about being in Auschwitz was having to live day after day with the feeling that nobody cared.
The title of Wiesel’s book, Night, the first book he wrote about the holocaust, was originally The Silence of the World.
HIs words make me think of what Martin Luther King said:
“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Michael Herr died on June 23, 2016, at the age of 76. Wiesel died a few days later, on July 2, 2016. Coincidentally, Herr died on the day I began reading Dispatches. The book is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read, and definitely one of the most enlightening books I’ve read on war.
Wiesel wrote and spoke about the love he saw in Auschwitz. He talked about how deeply affected he was when he saw a father giving his bread to his son, and the son giving it back. Expressions of humanity such as this gave him hope — a kind of proof that evil did not win. “It was such a defeat of the enemy’s theories and aspirations,” he said.
Herr wrote about the love he found in the midst of war:
“…Well, good luck… even Ocean Eyes, the third-tour Lurp, had remembered to at least say it to me that night before he went on the job…Usually it was only an uninhabited passage of dead language, sometimes it came out five times in a sentence, like punctuation, often it was spoken flat side up to telegraph the belief that there wasn’t any way out; tough shit, sin loi, smack it, good luck. Sometimes, though, it was said with such feeling and tenderness that it could crack your mask, that much love where there was so much war.”
Michael Herr spent his life, post-Dispatches, in London, where he avoided the spotlight. There he met Stanley Kubrick, and wrote the screenplay for Kubrick’s film about Vietnam, “Full Metal Jacket.”
He also co-wrote Francis Ford Copolla’s stunning film, “Apocalypse Now,” a film that Roger Ebert called “one of the key films of the century.”
As I consider the darkness of our own time, and the indifference of so many, I’m grateful for the witness of these two men, and for their life-affirming messages. I’m grateful for the warnings about keeping silent in the face of injustice. I’m most grateful that in writing about the mystery of evil, they did not fail to write about the mystery of the good.