MODERATED BY PETER BG SHOEMAKER & CONDENSED BY CANDACE WALSH
Peter: The Be Here Now collaborations are using the counterculture movement in the United States as their centerpiece, their lodestone. Herb, your exhibition of photographs focuses on your experiences and your fellow soldiers in Vietnam. Michael, one of the many remarkable things about your art is your perspective as someone who lost his sight while a soldier in Vietnam. Both of you have spent the decades since then building your careers, and bodies of work, as artists.
I want to start there. Both of you have been really open about your experiences in Vietnam and in those years before you found yourself in Southeast Asia. Both of you were drafted. Both of you had spent some time in college beforehand. Both of you were practicing your art. Can you talk about the culture you came from, how you thought about your place in it, and how that might have changed once you found yourself heading off, as my generation said, “into the suck”?
Michael: I was born in Santa Fe, lived in Taos from when I was in the fourth grade to sometime just before I went to Vietnam. Living in the north central part of New Mexico, the war seemed so far away and I didn’t think very much about it. On television, you could see all of the riots, the demonstrations and whatever else was going on in the larger cities. But out here, it was far away.
I was very much into hunting, fishing, and just having a good old life. I was in college and then left college. It was easy for me to be apart from that whole counterculture thing—the free love scene, people with long hair. The Hog Farm commune and others existed, and I didn’t think about any of it at all. I had no interest in it.
One day, I received that draft letter that said, “Greetings.” I wasn’t too happy about it, but I wasn’t concerned about it either. Someone even asked if I wanted to go to Canada with them, and I said, “No, I couldn’t possibly do that.” I ended up at Fort Bliss, Fort Polk, Fort Knox, then on to Vietnam.
We were constantly told, “There’s a war going on. You may come back and you may not.” Of course, when you’re at that age, you think you’re somewhat immortal. From my perspective, I was definitely going to come back.
One day, I believe in Fort Polk, these two guys were training us on this map course. They were our age, but there was a hardness about them. They were different, and I couldn’t quite place what it was. Then suddenly one day in Vietnam, it struck me why those two guys were so different.
That moment occurred three, four weeks after I got there. We walked into this little village. I came up to this thatched hut and inside was this old man with this very long mustache coming down, and his white braid. He sat there in front of his table, he had a pitcher of tea and two cups. He smiled at me. I didn’t really want to go into the hut. He offered me tea, and he poured it and then he raised his hand.
Of course, you heard stories of getting poisoned, so I pointed at the tea and pointed at him and then motioned for him to drink it. He drank his tea and, of course, all this time I had my M16 pointed right at him. Then he poured it again, he offered it and I shook my head no.
I turned around and walked away. I thought, “Oh, my goodness, what’s happened to me? Where’s my humanity?” But I guess in that world you have to develop this screen to preserve your sanity, in order to survive what you encounter in those situations on a daily basis. That moment is when I realized I was now one of those two hardened young men.
Peter: Tell us about the world you were in, Herb, before you were called up.
Herbert: I grew up in a small Midwestern farm town in Illinois. My father’s family were German Lutherans, and they had left Germany to escape conscription. They were pacifists, the direct followers of Martin Luther. They came over to this country. There were no warriors in my family at all. They were totally unprepared to understand what it meant when I was drafted.
I was focused on school, was working my way through school at the University of Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago, studying photography. I let my credit hours drop and I was drafted. I was unprepared. There were options. I wasn’t going to go to Canada and I wasn’t going to say that I was gay—even though I am. That didn’t seem to be an appropriate response. I did not want to try to be a conscientious objector, because it would have been a complicated, lengthy process.
It was an extraordinary time. Although I was going to school and working, I was part of the counterculture in Chicago. It was all going on around me. I had friends that were very involved in it because Chicago was very ahead of its time at that point, even more so I think than New York or San Francisco. While I was overseas, a good friend of mine was arrested in one of the Grant Park scrimmages.
Peter: Once you got to Vietnam, did you feel you were with people who had been part of that same counterculture that you were part of?
Herbert: I don’t think so. Although I met guys that were somewhat similar to me, when you go through basic training, they basically strip you of your personality. You become part of this intimate body of men who work as a unit. All that other stuff loses some of its importance. It’s more about the journey, what you’re there to do.
I landed in Long Binh. There was a swimming pool. There was an enlisted men’s club. I thought, “What is this?” I thought, this wasn’t bad at all. But after a couple of weeks I got attached to the 25th Infantry at C Chi. It was between Saigon and Cambodia on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where the war was going on. I was right in the middle of it then.
Peter: For artists who spend their lives in creative pursuits, trying to find truth and get their own truth out there, war can be both enormously horrifying and enormously clarifying. It can strip away all that other stuff and really let you see. You’d already been doing photography, Herb. Michael, you’d already been thinking about and doing sculpture and, of course, came from a great pottery family. Did you begin to find something there that would define your work afterward?
Michael: No, as Herb described, you became involved in this group of men and your identity was stripped. You don’t have time to think about other things, because from the time the sun comes up until the sun goes down, you’re out there in training, often into the night.
The only time was at the very end, after I got wounded and I was lying there in the hospital bed, knowing that I couldn’t see anymore and only have one good hand. Then, I wondered, will I ever be able to work again as a sculptor?
That question kept coming into my mind in the evacuation hospital in Vietnam, and later on when I got to Japan. I asked for some waterbased clay and created an inchworm, a squirrel, and a very crude form of Rodin’s The Thinker. At that moment, I knew that I could do it, as crude as those pieces may have been. Unfortunately, they didn’t survive. I don’t know whatever happened to them.
The excitement, the energy suddenly was very real. Now, I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life. It’s what I always wanted to do anyway, but now I had all the time in the world to pursue my art.
Afterwards, going through the VA process, meeting with social workers and psychologists before I was thrown out into the world again, everyone that I came across thought I shouldn’t even try to be a sculptor. They thought that I should go back to school and get my degree. I said no. I kept at it, and fortunately made it happen.
It was going to happen anyway, but not being able to see made me find a new way of going about the creative process. When you can’t see and you have one good hand, your world is all sound and touch. You walk into a room and in an instant, you can see everything, but when you’re blind, all you see is what the tips of your fingers see. Whatever you see and feel is just thousands of touches.
Peter: Herb, you shot the work in Sleeping During the Day in Vietnam. What was the role of that art in your time there?
Herbert: I think I just simply felt like I had to document what was around me for some reason. Like what Michael said, you’re there as a soldier, not as a photographer. I was there as a radio operator, not as a photographer, but I had a camera with me and I continued to do the work that I had been doing earlier.
Primarily, my job was running this high-frequency communications unit. The photography was second. The business of being an artist, like with Michael—when he talks about his work—it’s very evident you can see his vision of the sculpture that he creates. It’s very evident to me how that comes through his spirit, his mind, his gift, and ends up in his work. The same thing happened to me. We’re given a gift. And then, it’s our job to follow that gift in life. I did that.
Peter: Yet, what you chose to document in the work that you were doing there wasn’t the standard journalistic approach to war, which tends to focus on the injured, the maimed, the warrior, and warring. Your work was very different.
Herbert: I think one of the things that I see now as an older person is that I was trying to photograph what was inside of everyone I’ve ever photographed. And I discovered at some point that what’s inside of them is inside of all of us. It’s that life, it’s that spirit of life.
If you look at all the portraits of all the men, you pretty much see the same thing in their spirit. I’ve been photographing portraits all my adult life here. It’s the other information that can be interesting or fascinating, what you see surrounding that spirit, if that makes any sense.
Peter: I’ve spent some time thinking about the entwining of art and war that’s been going on since Achilles was on the plains of Troy. This is a long and important part of our culture. What makes one so close to another? What it is that draws artists to war as a subject?
Michael: I believe people are drawn to other people because of common interests. Art tells a story. Art captures emotions, feelings, history. But, that’s the only connection I can make, because war and art are at different ends of the spectrum of the spirit of the man and the love of life.
Peter: So I think what I hear you saying is that art is creation and war is destruction. Herb, do you agree?
Herbert: I’m not sure that artists are drawn to war. I think artists are everywhere, and when they find themselves in war, they do what it is that they do as artists and that is to present something that not everyone gets to see. If you have an artistic perspective, you observe things in a bit of a different way, then you try to put that into a work.
Peter: As far as I can tell now, neither of you are explicitly referencing your time in Vietnam in your current work.
Michael: That’s correct. I’ve only created one sculpture that goes back to that time period. I’m sure I won’t create another one. I don’t like that time. Of course, we all think about it. Every time I hear a helicopter fly overhead, the first thing I think of is Vietnam.
I’ll tell my story if asked, and I think it’s good that people do, but there’s also that understanding when you talk to someone who has gone through the experience of it all, there’s a very strong communication and understanding of that world.
Peter: Words only go so far. Returning from war is fraught. There’s inevitably an enormous gulf between those who were there and those that weren’t. There’s often a collective feeling on both sides of guilt, of misunderstanding, of confusion. I think that’s been true certainly since the Vietnam War and maybe even earlier than that. Do you ever get tired of a being asked these questions about your experience of Vietnam, your coming home, and your life after?
Michael: I don’t. I’ll answer any question. If someone wants to know something, and if they have the balls to ask, then I answer them. [laughter] How else does someone know? In a way, it helps to cleanse. If you acknowledge it, then perhaps you can help dissipate some of it by expressing it.
Peter: One of the things that I’ve experienced as a Marine and veteran of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, talking to the people coming back from Middle East wars, is that they’re very confused about the world they’re coming back into. There’s such divisiveness. There’s all this rhetorical support for them, “Support the troops,” which I think is a legacy of the experience of Vietnam. But they’re really confused because they come back to a world they are finding to be completely fractured.
What did you think of America when you returned to it? Herb, I think you said that you had taken off your uniform before you came back.
Herbert: You said it. I wanted to hide that I was a vet. I went back to Chicago and could not put my life back together there. I only lasted about six months in Chicago. You come home changed. You come back as a different person. The loss of innocence is extraordinary as a soldier. You go in as a young man, the world looks this way, and then you see all of humanity and what they do to each other and it changes you. You have this total loss of innocence.
I think trying to walk back into the life you left is impossible. I don’t think you can do it. I see that’s where so many guys have problems now. I hear a lot about suicidal ideation and actual suicides. That was very prevalent in my time, as well. I found myself very suicidal, but thank God, I didn’t do that—close to it but not quite.
At first I became virtually homeless. I was an artist, right? [laughter] I lived in an old empty hotel on Clark Street in Chicago. All the homeless people lived in the stairwell. All the walls in this building had been knocked down. I stayed there for about four or five months and then I thought, I’ve got to get out of here. I was going to go back to the Southwest because that’s where I had done some training. Subconsciously, I saw that as a place that was safe before Vietnam.
Peter: Michael, did you know any other vets when you got back?
Michael: I had a friend who was in Vietnam, a very good friend, but as Herb said, it changes you a lot and it changes the way you go about doing things, and so he went his way and I went mine. We used to go fishing a lot prior to that.
It’s a whole different scene when you come back. I believe art saved my life because I knew I had direction. I also have seven sisters and two brothers, so I was coming back to a loving environment. My parents lived in Taos at the time. I came back to an art community, and I started making pieces.
I was in the hospital for eight months. I got hurt the 8th of January and came home the 2nd of October. During that whole process, as I mentioned, no one thought I should or would be able to succeed as a sculptor Probably the only good thing that came out of my convalescence was that in the hospital, you’d just write, “Vietnam casualty” and you didn’t need to put a stamp on your letters home.
Herbert: I had no physical injury; it was just between my ears.
Michael: Our situations were very different. I’d be walking down the street, and people would come up and cry on my shoulder. Then when they’d walk away I’d ask whomever I was with, “Who was that?” Taos is a very small community. I lived with my parents for three months after I came back, and then I said, “I can’t survive if I stay here.” I found an apartment with the help of my sister, who lived in Santa Fe.
Peter: Why did you think that you couldn’t survive if you stayed in Taos?
Michael: Too much TLC. They wanted to do everything for me and there’s no way I would have been able to live. I wanted to live. I wanted to do things. I had to get out there and do them. When I told my parents, they said, “How will you cook?” “I’ll learn.” “How will you get anywhere?” “I’ll find a driver.” I bought a car and I found a driver.
Of course, I was still very much a young man. I slowly, somehow figured out how to go out on dates and that whole process. I just had to work at finding out ways to get things done.
Peter: Herb, you said earlier that you’d come from this pacifist family and background. That essentially, the day you left for Vietnam, your parents had decided you were lost to them.
Herbert: I think so. Watching television at that time and seeing all the soldiers being killed, I think they just assumed I would get killed. I think they started grieving my loss the day I left. My parents had lost my older brother. When we were younger, he died, and I think that death offered them a place to understand what it’s like to lose a child. It was very easy for them then to put me in that same place—to believe that they were going to lose their next son.
Peter: Did you go home to them first?
Herbert: No. I stayed in California for a week or two, in Oakland. I just couldn’t go back home. Then, I went back to my partner’s place in Chicago and that didn’t work because he had a new partner. Then I went and saw my family. But we just couldn’t recognize each other. I think that over time, eventually, we worked it out. I moved to New Mexico. My parents came out probably in the mid 1970s, and everything seemed to start to heal. We got to have a pretty extraordinary relationship in that process.
Peter: You both had really different homecomings. What would you say to people coming home now?
Michael: I strongly believe you have to find something that you love and set out to work at it, because it will save your life. It replaces all the negative energy that you brought back with you, the nightmares that go on for months. If you find something you can replace all those things with, then I think the healing starts.
Herbert: I didn’t come to terms with my pain for about twelve years. I hid my being a vet. Unlike you, Michael, I didn’t have any physical injuries, so I could do that. No one was asking me why I couldn’t walk or anything like that, so I could hide out fairly well.
In 1981, I was about to blow my brains out when the Veterans Center intervened. It saved my life. I called the vet center, and two guys came to visit me. I also got clean and sober at the same time. I started this whole process of understanding what was going on. I did not know I had PTSD. I had never even heard of it before.
In terms of guys coming back, I don’t know what to say. I’m in a weekly veterans group; we all have PTSD. We’re all Vietnam vets. We’re all in our late 60s, early 70s, except for a new guy from the first and second Gulf Wars.
Michael: That term didn’t exist when we came back. I remember telling my older brother, “I need to talk to someone. I need to get rid of things inside and I need help.” He started laughing and said, “You’re the strongest person I know,” so I let it go. I knew I wanted to talk to someone, but that’s as far as I ever got. I guess time took care of that, somewhat.
Herbert: I hear about so many of these guys taking their lives, and I don’t know what the Army can do to make reentry safer. I wish I knew. I hate to see guys suffer this way. When you lose your innocence and you don’t have support, it’s very tough.
Peter: The Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are suffering some pretty horrible, longterm, nasty, multiple deployment kind of stuff. I think that’s what’s destroying this generation: six, seven, eight deployments.
I did a podcast at Northern Arizona University about eight months ago. It was recorded in front of a class of vets coming back from the Middle East wars, from Afghanistan, from Iraq. The class was designed to help them understand the world they’re back in now. It’s taught through the perspective of the humanities, and what we’ve learned over the last 8,000 years of living together as humans.
What I found with all these people is this enormous confusion. The military is a family. It can be a cocoon around your understanding and around what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Everybody’s homecoming is unique just like everybody’s war is unique. But there’s a commonality of discovering yourself and your world outside of the military. I don’t think the VA is doing a great job addressing it. As you know, there are self-formed veterans groups that are trying very hard to cut down on these suicides. They say, “Call at any time. We’ll show up.” They send three guys over. That’s making some difference, but it’s a problem, for sure.
Michael: I think I’ve left it pretty much behind. The nightmares are gone. Other than that, I don’t like organizations or groups. I do donate sculptures to veterans groups. I was raised a great deal by my brother. We spent so much time in the mountains alone. I was very happy there. I didn’t have a lot of friends, because I just find that friends take energy. Several years ago, my wife, Laurie, said, “You haven’t been out of the house in seven days. You have to get out.” I was busy sculpting for seven days. I was having the best time.
Peter: Herb, you’ve been very open about your struggles with PTSD. I wonder what role your continuing practice of portraiture has played in coming to terms with your time in Vietnam.
Herbert: When I went for treatment the second time back in the late 1990s at the VA, they suggested that I print a couple of images every week. I went back into those negatives and I started printing them. After about a year, I had a pretty good body of work. That allowed some of that fear of that work to go away.
I live in isolation. I’ve never been able to live with somebody. To maintain the kind of intimacy that’s required in a marriage or a relationship, I can’t do that. I have to isolate. I can do it for two or three days and then I have to…I live in a bunker, basically, now. I come out and do the work, then I go back to my bunker. [laughs]
Peter: Behind your eight-foot walls.
Herbert: Behind my eight-foot walls. There I find safety. What Michael said about being indoors, working on his work, and you live your life pretty much by yourself, that’s the same thing I do.
Peter: I sympathize entirely [laughs] with the wanting to stay away from people thing. Michael, do you find your work to be therapy?
Michael: Absolutely. I love my work. As long as you focus on doing something you love, it grows. There’s nothing else in the world like it.
Peter: Do you find that you have a place in contemporary culture? Do you feel like you’re part of the ebb and flow?
Herbert: My work is somewhat archaic; I work with film. I have not taken any new photographs in a number of years. I’m working mostly with my old negatives, because there’s a big body of work that’s never been seen. That’s what I want to do while I’m an older person. I tried digital and I couldn’t do it.
I’m an older person. I’m ready to go up to the cemetery any time. I’m not going to push it, but I feel I’ve done what I need to do. When you’re young, you get to see the future. Then, when you get to this age, you can’t see the future anymore. I just think that’s the nature of all humans.
Peter:How about you, Michael? Do you feel part of the culture?
Michael: I get asked to go here and there to give talks about my work, or to have shows. I also have a wife. She needs people a lot more than I do. We occasionally go here or there. It’s easier to say no to things now than it was some years ago. We have two daughters, and we visit them.
Herbert: I wish I could give more back to the younger vets. I don’t know how I would do that. I would love it if my experience could help them. You never know. Something may open up. I do know that my work has opened up some doors. I’ve seen people walking out of my little exhibit, weeping. It’s like, “Wow. They were touched by something that they saw.”
Michael: We started doing touchable exhibits, because I had so many fights with museums across the country about being allowed to touch things. We’ve had them in England and other places in the world. People come out crying, saying, “I’ve always wanted the opportunity to touch pieces. Thank you.”
If I had a choice between sight and being blind, I’d take being blind, because you get used to it. If you’re happy and you love your life, why change it?
Herbert: I have been asked this question from some of my other soldier friends. If we had to do it all over again, would we? I was on a fairly accelerated success path when I was young, and I didn’t get that path. I got something else. I probably would not be living in Santa Fe, not have experienced the world I have here. I wouldn’t have been given all these gifts. I would have had a whole other life. I have the life I’ve been given, for one reason or another, and I just have to live in acceptance of it.
Peter: That’s the reality. That’s what we all have to do.
Michael: It’s interesting that it’s just one moment, here and there, that changes the directions of our lives. I could have stayed in basic training and typed for this officer, and I didn’t want to do it. At Fort Polk, they wanted me to sculpt a couple of tigers out of Styrofoam, and I could have done that. [laughs] Maybe that would have been great, but certainly I wouldn’t be sitting here with you, my wife wouldn’t be there, and our daughters wouldn’t be there. There’s no telling. Maybe I’d be dead by now. No one knows. It always amazes me. Just that one moment.