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From war children insight on peace

Children of War, by Roger Rosenblatt. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday. 212 pp. $13.95.

At a time when efforts to prevent war and reconcile international differences make headlines daily, the author of a new book has found an unusual source for ideas on this subject.

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Traveling 40,000 miles through five war-torn areas of the world, Roger Rosenblatt, a senior writer at Time magazine, interviewed children. He wanted to find out how war has affected their outlooks - how they view the world, what they think of their parents and of adults in general, whether they believe in governments and in God.

After visiting the schoolrooms of Belfast, the refugee camps in Thailand, the settlements of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and other strife-torn areas, Rosenblatt found three common themes emerging from the comments of the children he talked with - themes that cut across differences in age, sex, temperament, circumstances, and nationalities:

* Seriousness, shown in the children's rapt attentiveness, and careful, scrupulous answers to questions.

* An unfailing belief in God. (''. . . the faith of the children seemed abiding and boundless,'' Rosenblatt writes. And again, ''. . . there emerged the image of a single, comprehensive God for children in these particular straits, a God of the children of war, whose constituency had needs and fears like none other. . . .'')

* A lack of desire for revenge. (''. . . for the great majority of the children seen so far, it was revenge that stood for hell, and they would have none of it,'' he writes.)

Rosenblatt's journey resulted in a searing Time cover story published in January of 1982, which won the George Polk Award for journalism.

Now he has written ''Children of War,'' an expanded account of the journey - even more gripping and heartrending than the original article. The book, due to be published later this month, digs into the historical, psychological, and moral aspects of war.

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The children within its pages display a meager understanding of politics; they offer no theories for preventing war. Nevertheless, they contribute to reconciling national differences by their untainted moral example: an ability to empathize with the enemy, a wish for war to stop, and an unshaken faith in God. Their starkly honest observations are likely to penetrate the most hardened of hearts.

Rosenblatt doesn't spare readers the barbarity sometimes endured by Indochinese children, and the despair experienced by many others who lost close relatives and saw towns destroyed. He relates their stories faithfully, not for shock value, but to convey the intensity of their plight.

Ten-year-old Dror lives in an Israeli kibbutz where two men were killed by a rocket in 1978. He says he thinks a good deal about children in Lebanon. ''I feel terrible for them. They don't have as good shelters as we,'' he says.

Paul, a 13-year-old Irish boy whose Roman Catholic father was shot to death by Ulster terrorists for having a Protestant wife and living in a Protestant neighborhood, was asked whether he wanted to avenge his father's death. ''It doesn't matter who done it,'' he replied. ''Nothin's worth killing somebody.''

Of course, not all children give such model responses. Yet Rosenblatt notes that, in general, those who have suffered the most are often the ones least determined to get revenge.

Perhaps of all the discoveries Rosenblatt made, this last one is the most potent, for here are children who have lost everything, yet who can express a sentiment with the utmost sincerity, as found in the words of two boys from Kampuchea:

''Revenge is to make a bad man better than before.'' And ''. . . revenge means that I must make the most of my life.''

Will the harsh lessons these children have borne be reflected in the future of their countries? Will they retain compassion, gentleness, and innocence in adulthood? Or will they follow the patterns of their ancestors into war?

Rosenblatt doesn't really attempt to answer these questions, but one thing is unmistakably clear in his work - that today, adults have much to learn from such children.

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