Sede Vacante

The light is on but no one is home.

Children of war


This post is dedicated to Peter, Vic, Henri, and Erik, all survivors of war.

I’ve always been fascinated by war. The morbid drive to see people getting killed is only a small and primal part of it. Death, after all, is a proper subject of wonder–an inescapable aspect of our being, and yet totally unfathomable. No, my fascination stems from the fact that extreme circumstances provide an excellent backdrop to bring out the extremes in human beings; both the best and the worst; mass-murderers and heroes.

I’ve been lucky on a number of fronts with regard to this topic. The first and foremost is that I’m lucky enough to have never experienced war first hand. Despite my sick fascination with it, I have no illusions about it. I greatly respect war photographers like Nachtway, Adams, and Capa. Some part of me has a sick desire to try to follow in their footsteps. But being a photographer is different from being a combatant, or a civilian caught in the crossfire. Photographers are afforded the luxury of not having to choose sides.

The second lucky thing is that circumstance has brought me in contact with people who have experienced war and survived it. Because of them, there is hope that we, too, can learn from the atrocity of war, and be spared of the debilitating and life-changing effects of a first-hand experience.

Peter and Vic were children when the American War (what they call the Vietnam War over here in Viet Nam) finally ended with the fall of Saigon on 30 April, 1975. Being aligned with the southern (democratic) forces, they and their families were forced to flee and find a way to rebuild their lives after their country they had called home literally disappeared overnight. Although they were able to escape, the price was heavy–decades of displacement and the dispersal of their families to whichever country was inclined to accept them. Perhaps harsher still was the memory of friends and family left behind, and stories of fathers lining up their families against the wall of their homes to accomplish humanely what they had deemed an inevitability.

I am fortunate enough to work with both of them. Watching them go about their lives, you’d never think that they carried such haunting memories. Like everyone I know who has survived war, they find that speaking about it never comes easy. There are no words or pictures to capture accurately what it was like for them.

The other night, Vic recounted his experience of watching Platoon. Along with Apocalypse Now, I’ve always felt that Platoon had captured the sheer insanity of that war more realistically than any of the dozens of Vietnam War movies out there. Vic’s comment on the award-winning film: “I thought it was ridiculous.. because it wasn’t real enough.” I felt my skin crawl.

Henri and Erik have a different side of the story. Henry was in Rwanda working for the Belgian military as part of UN Peacekeeping forces in 1994; the year of the Rwandan Genocide. Erik on the other hand was a US Infantryman during the Korean Conflict. Both of them refuse to speak about their specific experiences. They reiterate over and over again, in generic terms, the madness and atrociousness of war. Both have left the military behind, and have successfully rebuilt their lives despite their experiences.

In Dialogues with Elie Weisel, it is apparent that much of the writer’s character and subsequent life was shaped by his survival at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He laments at the almost whimsical usage of the word ‘holocaust’ in today’s lengua franca. He is not worried that its common usage detracts or diminishes in any way his experiences. Only that no one but the survivors can truly understand what the word means. And his point is that he wants the word to be forgotten, because no one should ever go through and understand the kinds of experiences that the victims of the Shoa underwent.

He recounts the painful memories of his father. His father had been an upright man, unwilling to compromise his beliefs and principles. Despite the hardship within the camps, his father had made it a point to share the little they had with their fellow prisoners. He focused on alleviating the suffering of others, ignoring the primal demand to be focus on the self. What buggered the author was that he remembers hating his father for being so selfless. He recounts his rage at his father’s preference of the weakest and most oppressed over the desire to provide for himself and his son.

In January of 1945, his father died of dysentery and exhaustion in Buchenwald. His last words were the name of his son. Within months, the camp was liberated by the Third Army, and Weisel walked out of hell, having lost every member of his family. He was only 17.

In Zvi Kolitz’s Yosl Rakover Talk to God, the main protagonist cringes in a ditch within the Warsaw Ghetto as the Nazis raze it to the ground. Crying, he notices a dog that has jammed itself into a gap in the wall near him, yelping amidst the chaos. He laments how lucky the dog is for it has a valid reason for acting like a dog.

In the end, no one can take away our dignity and our humanity. We can only give it up. And whether in war or peace, that is a choice that painfully rests on each and every one of us.

“… lead us not into the test, but deliver us from evil.”

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