“Dearth of civil courage” is a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor & theologian, anti-Nazi dissident & conspirator (martyred 9 April 1945). He used it to explain the failure of German resistance to Hitler, before, during, & after his rise. Hitler was a special case, but “dearth of civil courage” is not an exclusively German trait. Lies, including very big lies, are in circulation &, for the duration of our world, will be in circulation from the Father of Lies. They will likewise always enjoy cover behind some form of “political correctness” — behind the drapery of fashion, if you will. Not everyone even knows that they are lies, or cares what the truth is. No courage should ever be expected of the careless. But there are people who do know perfectly well, have & will always know which end is “up” — & these remain silent. Their motive is dead obvious. Speaking up would cost them.
A latter-day disciple of Bonhoeffer’s, & a friend of mine, is Uwe Siemon-Netto. We never met in Vietnam, but go back to similar experiences there: rather more intense in his case. He was & remains an unusual case: a hack journalist by trade & yet, a Lutheran pastor by training. He has played a part in various intra-Lutheran debates that is interesting, but largely beyond me. His prolonged survival on some outer limb of the journalistic “mainstream” is, in itself, a noteworthy accomplishment. His job, as he has understood it, is to act as witness, & report what he has seen. Unlike most journalists I know, who falsely present themselves as “objective” & “disinterested,” Uwe imagines this calling to be pregnant with moral significance. It most certainly involves speaking up for truths that no one wants to hear; telling whole truths, not partial; being the messenger &, if it comes to that, the messenger who gets killed.
At age seventy-six, however, it must be said that Uwe is very much alive, & that his fate was instead to be ignored. He covered everything from the building of the Berlin Wall to its fall, & was present for almost every world crisis from the 1960s forward, on various continents. But Vietnam was where he left his heart most conspicuously. His recent book, Duc (his nickname in ‘Nam, shared with a street urchin he befriended), may stand as his definitive memoir of the forgotten & ignored truths of that conflict. But it is also what the subtitle promises: A Reporter’s Love for A Wounded People. Though very grim in passages, it is often entertaining. Many anecdotes are hilarious, & his evocation of life as it was in Vietnam, now pushing half a century ago, is undimmed & exact from what must have been obsessive note-taking. The reflections scattered through the book, including Uwe’s reflections on the journalist’s calling, are beautiful.
If for no other cause, I would recommend the book to gentle reader as the best account I know of the massacre at Hué, during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Played down by the functionaries of the Western press, excused by many, & denied by some (Noam Chomsky, &c), it was a manifestation of unambiguous evil on a convincing scale. No honest appraisal could fail to expose the nature of the Communist mind that had planned it in attentive detail: three thousand political executions, against a background of general carnage in which defenceless non-combatants, including large numbers of women & children considered to belong to the “class enemy,” became the intended occupants of mass graves.
It is hard for me to write about my own experiences in that country, partly for the rage I still contain against smug, liberal journalists who critiqued the allied war effort from the safety of the bars in Saigon. It is a disproportionate rage, for they were malicious idiots, not murderers in the first degree. Few had the intelligence to see the sometimes direct relationship between what they were filing & what would ensue; some did, & exulted in their power.
Uwe, with far greater experience in the field, as well as in Saigon, has done something very impressive. He presents his account calmly, by infusing it with love. What he is presenting is in accord with my own understanding of the history, & my own cursory witness. To his as to my mind, the fall of Vietnam into the hands of the Communists was among the great horrors of the 20th century. Those from the West whose vanity, wilful ignorance, moral indifference, & deceit served the Communist conquest, I have yet to forgive. So many went on to dominant positions in the world’s second-oldest profession.
The most memorable incident in the book is, perhaps, Uwe’s brief recruitment as a nurse in a German field clinic for civilian wounded. A doctor was working alone, after the Viet Cong had kidnapped the rest of the medical staff. Uwe’s tasks included, for instance, holding the spilt guts of a Vietnamese woman in place while the doctor tried to stitch her back together.
Years later, he found himself proposing an angle to a “conservative” German newspaper, looking for background historical features during the reunification. The major rôle East Germany had played, as an arms supplier to North Vietnam & the Viet Cong, & as an agitprop supplier to the West, was recalled.
“Here is an idea,” he said. “How about producing an in-depth report on the East German manufacturers of PPM-2 mines, the remnants of whose victims I saw all over Route 19 in Vietnam? How about searching East German archives for material about the propaganda mill that accused West Germany of complicity in the Vietnam War, probably resulting in the death of our doctors and nurses in Vietnam?”
He was met with an explosion of hostility from his younger editorial colleagues. Graduates of the student revolution of 1968, they had been taught to glorify Ho Chi Minh. This could not surprise him. Nor, alas, was he entirely surprised by the silence of his older colleagues, who knew more than the puppies, but “found it imprudent” to come to his support.
Hitlers come & go, but moral docility remains a constant in Germany, as here. I could fill this anti-blog with Canadian examples, witnessed first-hand. And I have seen it inside the Church, as well as outside. Would it make the slightest difference if our society, in the main, were still “nominally” Christian, & not as highly “secularized” as it has become through my lifetime?
On the simplest pragmatic level, I think, yes it would. I think the great majority would be, as ever, timidly unwilling to express themselves at personal cost. But I also think the constant liturgical reminder, that better is required of humans, would provide us with more heroes & heroines; that the constant recollection of Saints & Martyrs, who made stands when stands had to be made (often enough against the Church’s own bureaucracy) would help impart some starch. And in the background, I think there would be a greater capacity to discern the ring of truth. For in telling right apart from wrong, constant reinforcement should in fact work better than no reinforcement.
My empirical evidence for this is, however, only cumulatively anecdotal. It consists of the real heroes I have encountered in my life. Again & again I have found they were animated by what is today a highly unrepresentative religious faith; that this was very plainly the source of their courage. And that the few exceptions (such as my own unreligious father) nevertheless acted in ways that were stereotypically Christian. In principle, of course, anyone can be a hero. In practice, it is not so glib.
Uwe is one of my Christian heroes. Not a Saint, by any stretch of my imagination or his, but an honest man, willing to call a spade a spade, which is half way home already.