Thursday, 18 April 2013

The face of War

The bloodbath that stares you in the face in any war is mind-numbing. People are killed: and as they are killed, their narratives, their lives and their stories come to end with a crashing thud of finality. To the documenting organizations, these people are mere statistics. To the entity that launches the attack, these people are collateral damage. To a news outlet, they are sensational news on one day, and a mere footnote on the other. To the soldier that prays before pulling the trigger on them, they are the enemy, or rather, what their idea of the enemy is. To the reader that sits down to such news on television, newsprint, a handheld device or the internet, they are just painful images. To the scholarly observer, they are a ramification of ill-conceived policy. To the post-war prosecution tribunals, they are a footnote in the many, many leaves of paper that will comprise its decisions.

“But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony - Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up - take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”
― Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

But here’s what no one sees them as: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, grandfathers, grandmothers, uncles, aunts, friends, neighbours, teachers, doctors, store-keepers and so much more. No one sees that these faces had names, eyes that saw, ears that heard, noses that breathed in air and tongues that tasted. No one sees that a single bullet, a single bomb, a chance encounter with a landmine brought them to face death in seconds. No one sees that they had a future built on the light clouds of hope that they wanted to see realize. No one hears their unsaid words, sees their undone deeds and dreams their unfulfilled dreams. No one sees that in a matter of seconds, the castles they built in their dreams have come crashing down like the mind-numbing collapse of debris around them.

“Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?”
― Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

Scores of crying children make it to the news. They become the face of humanitarian aid work in the aftermath of the war. Some are lucky enough to thrive by rebuilding the pieces of their life with the bounty of families that adopt them. Some remain prisoners of their memories and yesteryears as they keep revisiting the sordid moments when they lost everything they ever knew to be familiar and comforting. They will grow to carry the memory like scars that will never go away, no matter how much they try. And yet, we will remain, looking at these children and trying scatter-brained strategies to stop war, but in the process, instead of preventing it, we exacerbate it. We wring our hands in agony at the continued death tolls. We wonder if we are civilized enough, if history hasn’t taught us what it should have, already. We don’t learn these lessons, we see them, brush past them and shrug, just throwing our two pennies’ worth and say that such people are barbaric.
We will denounce war on the one hand. But on the other, we will throw huge words saying that it is inevitable. It is Malthusian, of course, that a means has to come to erase chunks of population to keep the balance. It is Hawthornian, of course, that the clash of civilization will always happen. So we shrug it off in the name of this funny thing called academics. We will write op-ed pieces, whole books and fiction. We will imagine that we can feel their pain, and we will offer band-aid legislations and hurried policy changes. But we will come right back to the same spot and make the same mistakes. We will make speeches and we will make promises: This will never happen again. We will not let our fellowmen’s passing be in vain. And yet, we will go on, letting just the opposite happen.

While they continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger. But for all that we were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards — they were very free with all these expressions. We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from the true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.
― Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

While we are nitpicking about so-called low salaries and few vacation days, these people live realities where there is neither money nor a vacation ever. While we wonder what we could best pick – an iPhone or a Blackberry, the war they face is continuously kept alive because our purchases fuel their war. It is dismal enough that, as Lewis Caroll wrote, we are all fellow passengers to the grave. Why speed up the process and send someone spiralling down the cliff before the end of their time? Why decide to sow the seed of war when it takes lesser effort to sow those of peace?
Someone, somewhere is always affected by war. It doesn’t need to be someone you know. It doesn’t need to be someone you care about, even if you know them. But they suffer, and that suffering is as much yours as it is theirs: for you are bound by the same religion of humanity. Their wounded bodies, their broken dreams and their unachieved ambitions will stay locked in their pallid eyes. And that, is the face of war.

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