I don’t believe children see the world in black-and-white; I believe adults impose monochrome upon them with the inadequate answers they give to their children’s questions. Anyone who was ever fobbed off by a parent as a child should recognise the parent came up with a simplistic explanation to a beguiling poser simply to obscure their own ignorance. After all, children are given the impression their parents know everything about everything; they’re a cross between God and Norris McWhirter. To shatter the illusion would be a threat to both their authority and omnipotence.
As a child myself, I don’t recall asking any especially tough questions about ‘the war’ (which WWII – just thirty years previous – was still referred to as); the black-and-white explanation was already in place via old movies and comics – the Germans were bad, as were the Japanese. That’s why we had to fight and defeat them. In the broadest sense, that’s not too far from the truth, though. If any war could be called a just war, WWII can; as pointed out in the landmark ITV documentary series of the time, ‘The World at War’, the combined force of the Allies rid the planet of three evils – German Nazism, Italian Fascism, and Japanese militarism. It needed doing. Have there been any just wars since? I’m not so sure. But I digress.
Pete Townshend once remarked on his frustration at the reluctance of his parents’ generation to provide a suitable answer to the infant guitar-smasher’s question as to why the Germans did what they did in the 30s and 40s. To be fair, there were a lot of subjects families didn’t openly discuss back then; wartime experiences weren’t unique as regards topics to avoid. Everything from whispers of illegitimacy, insanity or homosexuality joined sexual abuse in the no-go area. Townshend was born less than a fortnight after the end of the Second World War in Europe, and though he will have grown up in the long shadow cast by it, he arrived too late to have any memories of life on the home front. Although the old soldiers of that conflict are quickly slipping away, the generation that crouched under the stairs or in the Anderson Shelters as children are still with us; and no matter how many rare reminiscences can be prised out of them, none of us will ever really know what it was like to start one’s life in such remarkable circumstances.
When wars are raging, the media divides its focus between opposing armies and the civilian population; since Vietnam, which is often referred to as the first television war, the latter has been a crucial element of coverage, but it’s probably true to say the upsetting images of innocents suffering have a shock value consistent with the bite-size remit of 24-hour broadcasting. Beyond that, there’s precious little indication of what happens once the cameras cease recording. What, I wonder, do the parents under fire tell their children when the inevitable questions are put to them?
There are aspects of a war-zone that are often too incomprehensible to imagine. In a western world which has gradually elevated children onto a pedestal as paragons of innocence to be protected from the big bad world, the thought that they could be a stray drone away from death on a daily basis is anathema. Yet, that is the reality for children in parts of the Middle East and Africa every single day. Try being a parent there and perhaps the stress of getting Junior into the right school in the right catchment area can be put into proper perspective.
I remember seeing a news report on neglected and virtually abandoned animals in an East European zoo during the Balkans conflict of the 90s. What had they done to deserve this? Nothing, of course. The poor beasts were simply unacknowledged collateral damage. If Doctor Doolittle had wandered through the pitiful menagerie, what kind of answer could he have come up with had one single animal asked why? I was reminded of this news report when I read a novel by Penelope Lively called ‘City of the Mind’, in which a chapter describes events as seen from the viewpoint of an ARP warden during the London Blitz. In the middle of an especially fearsome air-raid, he observes a cat carrying a kitten along a window ledge, an ordinary sight against a backdrop of extraordinary carnage. If that cat had turned to the ARP warden and spat out a string of expletives directed at the human race, one could hardly blame it. An animal kills another animal to feed the hunger in its belly – a justifiable reason; could any war raging in the world at this very moment come up with one as valid? I doubt it.
If a child asks why Israel and Palestine hate one another, or why Irish Catholics and Protestants hate each other, or why Pakistanis and Indians hate one another, or why all the different divisions of Islam hate one another and everyone else, even an exhaustive history of the roots of the hatred wouldn’t satisfy the simple fundamental question posed. The child asks the question for which the parent has no tangible answer because nobody has a tangible answer. The footage I saw last night of an air-strike on Syria, in which a screaming toddler ran through the wreckage into the arms of a presumed parent who was at least present to scoop it up and carry it away might one day ask that same question. I wondered what right anyone had to put a child through that trauma and concluded nobody had that right, ‘good’ guys or ‘bad’ guys, ‘them’ or ‘us’.
When the late author Beryl Bainbridge said that seeing newsreels of the liberated Nazi death camps at the climax of WWII was the end of her innocence and the moment she stopped seeing the world in a benign, benevolent light, she was lucky she’d even had such an outlook to begin with. What’s it all about, Alfie? Barack? Vladimir? Angela? David? Francois? Please tell me, ’cause I really don’t know.
© The Editor