Trinity 9, 2004

War and peace - taking a stand

Have any of you ever read the book “The Empire of the Sun”, by J. G. Ballard – or seen the film about the book?   It is the story of Jim, a boy who is aged about ten, who lived in Shanghai with his parents in the late 1930s and early 1940s. After the declaration of war between Japan and the USA, following the attack on Pearl Harbour, the western enclave in Shanghai is taken over by the Japanese, and the inhabitants evicted.   Jim loses his parents in the confusion and chaos of the Japanese take-over.   He escapes from a hospital, and tries to go back home.   All the houses in his street, previously owned by Europeans, are deserted, however.   For some time he lives on aging supplies of food which he finds in these houses, but there is still no sign of his parents.   Nobody is interested in him – not even the Japanese soldiers who are occupying the area.   He tries to get himself captured, but nobody wants him.  


Eventually he ends up in a prison camp.   Various westerners have been rounded up, and they are obviously a burden to the Japanese, who don’t want to use up scarce food and other resources on unwanted prisoners.   Disease in the camp is rife, as a result of malnutrition and the lack of anything but the most basic health care, which is provided mostly by an English doctor, Dr Ransome, who is one of the prisoners. The description of the prisoners’ gradual decline into chronic illness, emaciation and often death is gruesome, no doubt based on Ballard’s own experiences of the camp in which he himself was imprisoned.


The prison camp brings out a wide range of forms of behaviour in the prisoners.   Some of the prisoners show a startling lack of compassion towards Jim, who to all intents and purposes is an orphan.   For the most part, he is left to fend for himself.   However, the doctor does give him some rudimentary schooling, which seems to revolve mainly around Kennedy’s Latin Primer.   We see some of the prisoners becoming quite skilled in employing various ruses to get extra food; but others sacrifice their rations so that those who are sick or dying may benefit.   The Japanese guards are randomly violent towards some of the prisoners, and also towards the Chinese beggars and coolies who hang around the prison gates (this part of China was occupied at that time by the Japanese, as a result of the Sino-Japanese war).

What is especially pitiful is to see the attempts which the prisoners make to cope with their plight.   These are westerners who would have led normal, middle-class expatriate lives, lives that were largely comfortable and respectable.   We see them clinging onto the remnants of that way of life – keeping tennis rackets and cricket bats even when the camp is finally closed and they have to leave with whatever belongings they can manage to take.   Jim is fascinated by military aeroplanes, as he has been since he was a very young child.   As he sees them flying overhead, they take him into a kind of dream world   in which their beauty and power override their potential for devastation and death.    He remains convinced that he will soon see his parents, and that life will get back to normal.  


The Empire of the Sun is a sobering reminder of the sordidness of the consequences of war.   This is war as experienced by ordinary people who have had the misfortune to be caught up in it, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.   We see graphically the effects of homelessness, of chronic food shortages, in which all that the prisoners have to eat for weeks on end are one or two sweet potatoes a day, often fermented or rotten;   the arbitrary breaking up of families; the frequency of anonymous and unceremonious death.   We see that for all the saints and heroes which war produces, many people are dominated by selfishness.   At one point two men who Jim was with tried to sell him; we read about people being beaten to death, and about those who try to be the first to reach a dead body in order to strip it of its valuables.   We also see the Chinese economy in ruins, with millions starving; the Japanese political system dominated by militarism; and a mindset in which the highest glory is given to suicide bombers, the Kamikaze pilots.


When Jim, now fourteen, sees two tremendous flashes in the distance, three days apart, we know that the war is coming to an end.   Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been devastated by nuclear explosions, although of course Jim doesn’t know this until later.   Those explosions in fact happened on 6 th and 9 th August 1945 – 59 years ago this weekend.   The brutality of six years of war, across the world, had led to such a hardening of hearts and minds towards human life that even the loss of some (100,000) civilian lives was seen by the US government as an acceptable price to be paid to secure victory.  


“When will they ever learn?” – runs the refrain of the old familiar song sometimes sung at Remembrance time.   But how much have we learned?   Political leaders are now far more conscious of the need to minimise casualties in war than they were sixty years ago.   A thousand American soldiers have died in Iraq – which is thousand too many, but governments are far more sensitive to pictures of body bags than they used to be.   The opposition of ordinary people to war is now being expressed far more vociferously than it was for most of the last century.   But the particular value of Ballard’s book is to remind us of what war can do to the everyday lives of those who are caught up in it.   It shows how war tends to dehumanise people – to make them less than human.   This is what Saddam Hussein did to many in Iraq; but for many people in Iraq the lack of any real order and security has meant that things have changed very little, on some levels.


What can be done to bring us to a time when war will be seen as a thing of a past, a means of resolving disagreements which everyone will knows creates more problems than it solves?   I believe we need more people like Ron Kovic, the US marine who came back from Vietnam severely wounded, and after his partial recovery began to campaign vigorously against the war.   Some of you may have seen his story in the film Born on the Fourth of July, in which the starring role was played by Tom Cruse.   Ron Kovic opposed the way in which the soldiers in Vietnam were told to destroy peasant villages, killing women and children; he objected also to the covering up of his killing of one of his fellow marines when dazzled by the glare of the sun.   His protest, and that of thousands of others, took place at a time – in the early 1970s – when the US government would not tolerate opposition to the war; and in fact some protesters were even killed when police opened fire on students at Kent state university.  


I’m not arguing that war is always wrong, especially when self-defence is necessary.   But there are times when the motivation for war is highly questionable and the consequences for ordinary people on both sides are out of proportion to the supposed aims of the war.   One of the disturbing lessons of the Empire of the Sun was how easy it is in war for one’s conscience to be silenced by the demands of self-preservation.   Ron Kovic, in Born on the Fourth of July, by contrast, listened to his conscience, and acted upon its promptings, even at a great cost to himself.   In doing so he played his part in moving us all towards the time when our knowledge of how futile and how costly war is, in human terms, will make it unthinkable that people will resort to such a barbaric way of solving international problems.