“…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 this 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.
Michael Herr chose to cover the war in Vietnam, and Elie Wiesel had no choice but to be at Auschwitz — but both bore witness (to paraphrase Herr) to the death spaces and the life they found inside.
I met Elie Wiesel In the 1980s, when I was involved in the Sanctuary Movement. For several years, my church worked with some activist Dominican Nuns who lived at a nearby convent in San Rafael, California. Together, we housed and protected refugees from El Salvador who’d 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’d been asked to lead a workshop. I remember how touched I felt when some Native American Indians who lived nearby found out about our work, and sent a shell, and some herbs to burn, to prepare the room for dialogue.
After the conference, I talked to Elie Wiesel about the work we were doing with refugees.
Someone once said Elie Wiesel looked like Lazarus. It was true, with his thick, unruly hair, and the intensity of the darkness in his eyes. He was the most concerned, and serious person I’d ever met. My father got a kick out of me describing him, for years, as the man without bullshit.
What I remember most from Elie Wiesel’s talk was his warning against indifference, which he regarded as far worse than hatred.
“The opposite of love is not hate,” he said, “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 living with the feeling that no one cared (the title of his novel, Night, was originally The Silence of the World).
Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate in a few weeks, said the same thing about silence:
“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Michael Herr died at age 76, on June 23, 2016, a few days before Elie Wiesel died, on July 2, 2016. Coincidentally, Herr died on the day I started to read Dispatches, one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Like Wiesel, who wrote about the love and tenderness he found in Auschwitz — the prisoner who gave away his only crust of bread to save his father’s life — Herr wrote about the love he found in the midst of war:
“…Well, good luck, the Vietnam verbal tic, 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 Copallas’ “Apocalypse Now,” which Roger Ebert called “one of the key films of the century.”
As 2016 draws to a close, I’m grateful for the witness of these two men, and for their life-affirming messages, though they saw the worst of humanity. I’m grateful for their reminder to speak up. “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” Wiesel said, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” I’m grateful that in writing about the mystery of evil, they did not fail to write about the mystery of the good.