Monday, March 17, 2014

Two children of war


Whatever prompted my parents to take such a youngster to this movie, I will never know. It must have been in the late 40s or early 50s and all that I remember was it involved a group of kids living in the rubble of a city bombed out during World War II. It was probably Berlin, but could have been London or a hundred other cities that suffered the same kind of devastating bombardment. If those parents had a reason in mind for showing me this movie, the guess is it was to bring home the horrors of war to an impressionable mind. I might have said something a kid would say about wanting to go to war and be a hero. I took something quite different away from it.

I saw a group of kids in a Hollywood white-washed version of a war environment having the time of their lives, living in that rubble, scrounging for food and clothing, totally independent and indifferent to what was going on around them. And, that's all I remember though I am guessing everything turned out all right or I wouldn't have such a fond recollection.


Since then the memory of that movie has risen twice at least while reading two books, one this past week, and one several years ago. Both of them showed what really should have been taken from that movie.

In "A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier" by Ishmael Beah, the author at the age of 12 in the late 1990s became immersed in a civil war in his native Sierra Leone. A group of rebels attacked his village, killed as many people as they could while the few survivors scattered into the jungle or across a river only to be killed or chased again from the next village where they settled. Beah himself managed to survive several deadly attacks with a group of friends as they made their way almost the length of their country's coastline attempting to escape the fighting and at the same time trying to locate family.

Along the way they encountered numerous difficulties, one of the most telling being chased out of villages or refused entry because the residents mistook them for the feared child solders known for heartless murders in the conflict.

The war caught up with him and he was conscripted into the loyalist army and forced to be a soldier himself, carrying the most modern of infantry weapons including the ultimate WMD as described in the movie "The Lord of War," the Kalashnikov AK-47. He became a killer himself surviving several battles with rebel soldiers and showing no mercy to the enemy, even cutting the throats of prisoners.

This is no pretty story of a clean GI Joe fighting heroically against a common obviously evil enemy. This is about a filthy war in which child soldiers who were apparently quite comfortable slitting an enemy prisoner's throat were feared by the general population. Beah didn't even know if he was with the good guys or the bad guys, just that he was a soldier and killed the enemy. Every step of his journey took him farther from his childhood and turned him into this cold killer as a child soldier.

Eventually a rescue agency was able to pull him out of the army and take him to rehabilitation which he and his friends fought bitterly, wanting only to get back to the only thing they saw themselves as anymore – soldiers.  

After about eight months he was deemed rehabilitated and in the process had discovered an uncle whom he had not known about and who took him in.  But the war followed and the rebels entered Freetown where the uncle lived, bringing the mayhem and death to the country's capital.



Fortunately for Beah, he had been chosen to participate in a UN mission and traveled to New York to address that body about the horrors of child soldiers.  One statement from that time in the book stood out.  He wrote this: "I was sad to leave but I was also pleased to have met people outside Sierra Leone. Because if I was to get killed upon my return, I know that a memory of my existence was alive somewhere in the world."

He made a friend in the city of a woman who later was able to help him escape from the rebels in Freetown, cross into Guinea and eventually return to New York. He was one of the lucky ones. He suspected most of his friends ended up back in the fighting and that most had died.

Similarly Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird" follows a young boy, abandoned by his parents, as he tries to escape Nazi horrors and persecution by his own people during World War II. Considered at times a gypsy and at others a Jew he, suffered immeasurable hardship as he searched from village to village for a place of refuge. He faced incredible cruelties and observed others. What I recall from reading it several years ago was that at times he seemed to find that refuge but inevitably something new intervened and he was plunged again into the hopelessness of his situation. It's a dark tale about a side of war seldom exposed. Kosinski himself was separated from his family in Poland during the war. Some controversy surrounds the book, but in the end, its message overshadows the criticism. It is another story of the loss of innocence and childhood in the midst of a brutal war.

And, children today are suffering the same victimization in wars beyond their control or even comprehension, in Syria, in African refugee camps and anywhere else in the world where violence can erupt in an instant.

What the two books do is peel away the veneer of romanticized image I had carried for years of those independent children surviving by their wits in the remains of their city. There is nothing romantic about it.

It resonates today when with the flood of information available and the relative anonymity of the internet, so many political and social arguments elevate so quickly to logical extremes, where, in perhaps the worst example, a whole nation charges into war against an enemy that had nothing to do with the catalyst. That's Iraq. But that is certainly not unique. Across Africa and Asia and in South America, violence erupts over what seem on a cosmic scale to be minor complaints. And in our own country, we have people openly calling for presidential assassinations because they don't like a health care program. In this case the root cause appears to be racist. The first African American president is consistently vilified and violence threatened largely because of that unspoken hatred.

Instead of debating the issues, the solution seems to be to kill the bastard. President Obama should be revered just for the composure he maintains through the endless onslaught of scurrilous attacks.

Sometimes I have to laugh at the flag-waving second amendment patriots around us now. It's funny how in all those fantasies about standing up to an oppressive government in a violent war, the person having the fantasy wins. It's like Bob Dylan's line, "You can be in my dream if I can be in yours."

Problem is, if you look at the logistics, you have a bunch of untrained yahoos with handguns facing tanks, artillery, and airborne drones, smart bombs, and probably stuff that is still too secret to show anyone and they think they are going to win. They do it couching their crusade in terms of patriotism and religion. On top of that those people apparently despise anyone who is a true revolutionary. Picture Che Gueverra, not Ted Nugent.

No, in the stark reality of these two books, war is horrible, no one wins, good people die or are changed forever and in particular here, two children lose their childhoods and one even becomes the cold-blooded killer at the tender age of 13. They are tangible faces of those children suffering the same fate today. That is the reality; quickly escalating violence, thousands of refugees, thousands of innocent lives lost, over what? Oil we don't  really need?  Territory that doesn't belong to us? A president from a minority race? Philosophy or religion that is different from ours?

If only the saber-rattling, gun-toting, bible-quoting zealots could spend one day in terror on the bare feet of a child attempting only to survive as he tries to escape the violence in the war-torn landscape of his youth, it might change the perspective.

But then the fantasy of war has always been more appealing than the reality; and there is no romance in a world where children scrounge through rubble just to survive.

Recent books by and about refugees

A more recent refugee situation looking for a writer

Look at the picture and ask yourself WWJD

Syrian refugee wins Olympic heat after swimming for her life



1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Tim, for another thoughtful, well written piece. A Long Way Gone was already on my reading list and I have added A Painted Bird. Check out the book or movie called The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, s haunting story about the young son of a Nazi commandant who befriends another young boy in a concentration camp and exchanges clothes with him. They are just little boys and want to play together. There is only a fence in the way but you can dig a hole under it. A simple solution becomes part of the final solution.

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Interesting quotations

"In the final analysis your life is only as good as the background music you dance to." – that was me

"Whether you think that you can or you think you can't, you are right." – Henry Ford

"You want to feel alive until the day you croak" – Frank Gallagher Shameless

"Smooth is good but sailing takes a brisk wind" – me

"I'm a drinker with writing problems." ~ Brendan Behan

"Religious Freedom is not about stopping persecution; it’s about being the one who gets to do it. Glory!" – Mrs. Betty Bowers, America's best Christian

It doesn't matter what you write, it only matters that you write.

"Give someone a book and they'll read all day. Teach someone to write a book and they'll spend a lifetime mired in paralyzing self doubt." – internet meme

"It's been a long time since I heard my backbone crack – Chuck Berry

“Don’t think you’re on the right road just because it’s a well-beaten path.” – JD

"I was the only person up on the hill with both racing numbers and a handicapped placard." – Kitty Delorey Fleischman, a grandmother who occasionally still races her Porsche in hill climbs.

Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. – anon

"Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool." – Mark Twain

Shit happens; you just come up with a different plan. – Kitty

Your body is not a temple. It's an amusement park. – Anthony Bourdain

Never too late for a happy childhood – Berkley Breathed

A real writer doesn't just want to write, a real writer has to write. – Internet meme

"It was like the aftermath of an orgasm with the wrong partner" – David Lagercrants, "The Girl in the Spider's Web"

The non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity. – Franz Kafka

If the muse is late, start without her – Peter S. Beagle

We never comprehend how heavy the things are we insist on carrying until we set them down. jd

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain Actually you could do the same thing with the word "really" as in "really cold."

If you are looking for an experience that will temper your vanity, this is it. There's no one to impress when you're alone on the trap line. – Michael Carey quoting his father's journal

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. – Benjamin Franklin

It’s nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums of money to get rid of. – Shirley Hazzard

So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence -- Bertrand Russell

You know that I always just wanted to have a small ship to take stuff from a place that had a lot of that stuff to a place that did not have a lot of that stuff and so prosper.—Jackie Faber, “The Wake of the Lorelei Lee”

If you attack the arguer instead of the argument, you lose both

If an insurance company won’t pay for damages caused by an “act of God,” shouldn’t it then have to prove the existence of God? – I said that

I used to think getting old was about vanity—but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial. – Eugene O’Neill

German General to Swiss General: “You have only 500,000 men in your army; what would you do if I invaded with 1 million men?”

Swiss General: “Well, I suppose every one of my soldiers would need to fire twice.”

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.—Gloria Steinem

Exceed your bandwidth—sign on the wall of the maintenance shop at the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center

One thing I do know, if you keep at it, you usually wind up getting something done.—Patricia Monaghan

Do you want to know what kind of person makes the best reporter? I’ll tell you. A borderline sociopath. Someone smart, inquisitive, stubborn, disorganized, chaotic, and in a perpetual state of simmering rage at the failings of the world.—Brett Arends

It is a very simple mind that only knows how to spell a word one way.—Andrew Jackson

3:30 is too late or too early to do anything—Rene Descartes

Everything is okay when it’s 50-below as long as everything is okay. – an Alaskan in Tom Walker’s “The Seventymile Kid”

You can have your own opinion but you can’t have your own science.—commenter arguing on a story about polar bears and global warming

He looks at three ex wives as a good start—TV police drama

Talkeetna: A friendly little drinking town with a climbing problem.—a handmade bumper sticker

“You’re either into the wall or into the show”—Marco Andretti on giving it all to qualify last at the 2011 Indy 500

Makeup is not for the faint of heart—the makeup guerrilla

“I’m going to relax in a very adult manner.”—Danica Patrick after sweating it out and qualifying half an hour before Andretti

“Asking Congress to come back is like asking a mugger to come back because he forgot your wallet.”—a roundtable participant on Fox of all places

As Republicans go further back in the conception process to define when life actually begins, I am beginning to think the eventual definition will be life begins in the beer I was drinking when I met her.—me again

Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison.”—a state department of Fish and Game official explaining why the state would not go along with a federal plan to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska because the agreement did not specifically allow hunting

Each day do something that won’t compute – anon

I can’t belive I still have to protest this shit – a sign carriend by an elderly woman at an Occupy demonstration

Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stared at walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. – Meg Chittenden

Life should be a little nuts or else it’s just a bunch of Thursdays strung together—Kevin Costner as Beau Burroughs in “Rumor has it”

You’re just a wanker whipping up fear —Irish President Michael D. Higgins to a tea party radio talk show host

Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are—Michelle Obama

Things sports announcers say

"… there's a fearlessment about him …"

"He's got to have the lead if he's going to win this race."

"Kansas has always had the ability to score with the basketball."

"NFL to put computer chips in balls." Oh, that's gotta hurt.

"Now that you're in the finals you have to run the race that's going to get you on the podium."

"It's very important for both sides that they stay on their feet."

This is why you get to hate sportscasters. Kansas beats Texas for the first time since 1938. So the pundits open their segment with the question "let's talk about what went wrong." Wrong? Kansas WON a football game! That's what went RIGHT!

"I brought out the thermostat to show you how cold it is here." Points to a thermometer reading zero in Minneapolis.

"It's tough to win on the road when you turn the ball over." Oh, really? Like you can do all right if you turn the ball over playing at home?

Cliches so imbedded in sportscasters' minds they can't help themselves: "Minnesota fell from the ranks of the undefeated today." What ranks? They were the only undefeated team left.

A good one: A 5'10" player went up and caught a pass off a defensive back over six feet tall. The quote? "He's got some hops."

Best homonym of the day so far: "It's all tied. Alabama 34, Kentucky 3." Oh, Tide.

"Steve Hooker commentates on his Olympic pole vault gold medal." When "comments" just won't do.

"He's certainly capable of the top ten, maybe even higher than that."

"Atlanta is capable of doing what they're doing."

"Biyombo, one of seven kids from the Republic of Congo." In the NBA? In America? In his whole country?

"You can't come out and be aggressive but you can't come out and be unaggressive."

"They're gonna be in every game they play!"

"First you have to get two strikes on the hitter before you get the strikeout."

"The game ended in the final seconds." You have to wonder when the others ended or are they still going on?

How is a team down by one touchdown before the half "totally demoralized?"

"If they score runs they will win."

"I think the matchup is what it is"

After a play a Houston defender was on his knees, his head on the ground and his hand underneath him appeared to clutch a very sensitive part of the male anatomy. He rolled onto his back and quickly removed his hand. (Remember the old Cosby routine "you cannot touch certain parts of your body?") Finally they helped the guy to the sideline and then the replay was shown. In it the guy clearly took a hard knee between his thighs. As this was being shown, one of the announcers says, "It looks like he hurt his shoulder." The other agrees and then they both talk about how serious a shoulder injury can be. Were we watching the same game?

"Somebody is going to be the quarterback or we're going to see a new quarterback."

"If you're gonna play running back in the SEC you're gonna take hits."

"That was a playmaker making a play."

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Church Mutual Insurance won't cover Church's flood damage because it's 'an act of God'

Homicide victims rarely talk to police

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GOP congressman opposes gun control because gay marriage leads to bestiality

Owner of killer bear chokes to death on sex toy

Support for legalizing pot hits all-time high

Give me all your money or my penguin will explode

How zombie worms have sex in whale bones

Crocodile steals zoo worker's lawn mower

Woman shot by oven while trying to cook waffles

Nude beach blowjob jet ski fight leads to wife's death

Woman stabs husband with squirrel for not buying beer Christmas Eve