Saturday, May 12, 2007

War, adolescence, empathy, decisions

Matthew Parris has been reading a diary, the diary of an adolescent girl writing in interesting times. A German girl writing between 1940 and 1945. He gets involved in her life, feels something of what she felt, sees things for a moment through her eyes. Her diary does for him what what good books do: it broadens his sympathies.

Yet the context given to the article by the headline (Hilke’s diary: Anne Frank with a difference) and by Parris himself is one of surprise that this girl, like Anne Frank, should feel and say all these normal things at such a time, and yet still be German. Parris, like some of his commenters, seem to assume that Anne Frank has cornered the market on wartime adolescence and that all such experience is summed up in hers. That therefore we should be amazed that a girl living under the Nazis should capture our sympathy.

He finishes with this.

I went yesterday to a memorial service for one of my great predecessor sketchwriters on this paper, Frank Johnson, at St Clement Danes Church in the Strand: the Air Force Church, restored after German bombs reduced it to ruin. Outside is a bronze statue of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris. Inside we sang: “I vow to thee my country”. Hilke’s diary was in my briefcase.

I’m not suggesting an answer. I don’t even know the question. But is there a better way?
This is the sort of sentimentalism that makes us unable to deal with the world. Is there a better way than war? Yes, and most people most of the time choose it. There's an Orwell essay in which he asks what Britain, shorn of all its imperial power, can offer the world. He answers, "the habit of not killing each other". And generally, that's what people, almost everywhere, almost all the time, opt to do: not kill each other. They talk, make rules, bend the rules, break the rules, look the other way, close their eyes, ears and noses rather than kill, or even be placed in a position where killing becomes a little more likely.

But sometimes, there isn't a better way. Sometimes, a decision has to be made that will lead to men, women and little girls like Hilke having bombs dropped on them. The people who have to make those decisions cannot do so in the state of mind in which Parris found himself after reading the diary. It would render them impotent, incapable of action. Who but the pathologically damaged would kill someone for whom they felt such sympathy?

When the time comes to make such decisions, it is not the Hilkes but the group, your group, you are thinking of and the question is one of survival as a group. Individual lives matter insofar as they matter to the survival of the group. It would be nice to pretend it could be otherwise, but it never has been and I can see no reason why it would ever be.

Hilke didn't die under the bombing. She survived and married. I'm very glad. But I'm also glad we killed enough of her countrymen to destroy the regime that they fought for.

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