This beautifully written letter to Tim Hertherington, who was recently killed in Lybia while covering a story, really moved me. I would imagine friendships inside careers like this spark some dark conversation topics during happy hours.
Written by: Sebastian Junger
Tim, man, what can I say? For the first few hours the stories were confused enough that I could imagine maybe none of them were true, but they finally settled into one brief, brutal narrative: while covering rebel forces in the city of Misrata, Libya, you got hit by a piece of shrapnel and bled to death on the way to the clinic. You couldn’t have known this, but your fellow photographer Chris Hondros would die later that evening.
I’m picturing you and your three wounded colleagues in the back of a pickup truck. There are young men with bandannas on their heads and guns in their hands and everyone is screaming and the driver is jamming his overloaded vehicle through the destroyed streets of that city, trying to get you all to the clinic in time.
He didn’t. I’ve never even heard of Misrata before, but for your whole life it was there on a map for you to find and ponder and finally go to. All of us in the profession—the war profession, for lack of a better name—know about that town. It’s there waiting for all of us. But you went to yours, and it claimed you. You went in by boat because the city was besieged by forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi (another name you probably never gave much thought to during your life) and you must have known this was a bad one. Boat trips are usually such nice affairs, but not this one. How strange to be out on the water off a beautiful coastline with the salt smell and the wind in your face—except this time you’re headed toward a place of violence and killing and destruction. You must have known that the unthinkable had to be considered. You must have known you might not ever get back on that boat alive.
You and I were always talking about risk because she was the beautiful woman we were both in love with, right? The one who made us feel the most special, the most alive? We were always trying to have one more dance with her without paying the price. All those quiet, huddled conversations we had in Afghanistan: where to walk on the patrols, what to do if the outpost gets overrun, what kind of body armor to wear. You were so smart about it, too—so smart about it that I would actually tease you about being scared. Of course you were scared—you were terrified. We both were. We were terrified and we were in love, and in the end, you were the one she chose.
I’m in the truck with you. I’m imagining those last minutes. You’re on your back watching the tops of the buildings jolt by and the blue Mediterranean sky beyond them. I almost drowned once, and when I finally got back to the beach I was all alone and I just lay there watching the clouds go by. I’d never really thought about clouds before, but there they were, all for me, just glorious. Maybe you saw those clouds, too, but you weren’t out of it yet, and you probably knew it. I know what you were thinking: What a silly way to die. What a silly, selfish, ridiculous mistake to have made.
Don’t think that, brother. You had a very specific vision for your work and for your life, and that vision included your death. It didn’t have to, but that’s how it turned out. I’m so sorry, Tim. The conversation we could have had about this crazy stunt of yours! Christ, I would have yelled at you, but you know that. Getting mad was how we kept each other safe, how we kept the other from doing something stupid.
Your vision, though. Let’s talk about that. It’s what you wanted to communicate to the world about this story—about every story. Maybe Misrata wasn’t worth dying for—surely that thought must have crossed your mind in those last moments—but what about all the Misratas of the world? What about Liberia and Darfur and Sri Lanka and all those terrible, ugly stories that you brought such humanity to? That you helped bring the world’s attention to?
After the war in Liberia you rented a house in the capital and lived there for years. Years. Who does that? No one I know except you, my dear friend. That’s part of Misrata, too. That’s also part of what you died for: the decision to live a life that was thrown open to all the beauty and misery and ugliness and joy in the world. Before this last trip you told me that you wanted to make a film about the relationship between young men and violence. You had this idea that young men in combat act in ways that emulate images they’ve seen—movies, photographs—of other men in other wars, other battles. You had this idea of a feedback loop between the world of images and the world of men that continually reinforced and altered itself as one war inevitably replaced another in the long tragic grind of human affairs.
That was a fine idea, Tim—one of your very best. It was an idea that our world very much needs to understand. I don’t know if it was worth dying for—what is?—but it was certainly an idea worth devoting one’s life to. Which is what you did. What a vision you had, my friend. What a goddamned terrible, beautiful vision of things.
(via Vanity Fair. They say “a version of this article will appear in the June 2011 issue.”)