The Scene: It is 1919, just a few months after the end of World War 1. Wendy Muller is 6 years old and has just begun the school year in Christchurch, New Zealand. It is playtime, and the teacher has told the class that after play is over, they can each choose a book to read from the school library.
Natalie was Wendy’s only friend at school. They had become good friends on the first day of school. Each noticed that the other had yellow ribbons in their hair and butterfly hairclips. From that day on the two had been almost inseparable, especially at playtimes and lunchtime. Natalie was waiting for Wendy now.
‘What book are you going to read, Nat?’ Wendy asked as soon as they stepped outside into the sunshine. ‘I’m going to get a Beatrix Potter book. I love reading about animals.’
‘I’m going to find a book about fairies, and goblins, and witches.’
‘Ugh. Witches! No thanks. I don’t like witches. They eat little girls.’
‘Not the good ones. I like the good ones.’
Wendy and Natalie sat on a school bench and watched the boys playing a game of rugby.
‘Why do they do that Nat? Why do boys want to run around, get themselves all dirty, and fall over and graze their knees? I’m glad I’m not a boy.’
‘Me too. My brother’s a boy. And mother tells me Dad was a boy once.’
Wendy gazed at the boys in the yard, then looked at the ground.
‘My Dad’s dead.’
‘How did he die?’ Natalie asked innocently.
‘He was killed in the war. My Mum says a German shot him. But that doesn’t make sense. My Grandfather’s German, and he wouldn’t shoot my father.’
‘Perhaps it was a bad German. My Dad says the Germans were baddies. He says that’s why there was a war. To stop the baddies.’
‘But my Granddad’s not a baddie.’
‘Maybe he’s a good baddie,’ Natalie said.
‘If there are good baddies…’ Wendy hesitated, ‘…then, are there bad goodies too?’
This short scene is an excerpt from my historical novel Ironic Cross.1 In it we hear two young girls deliberating on whether people can be entirely “good” or totally “bad.”
The dialogue is a child’s version of the Alexander Solzhenitsyn reflection on good and evil in his novel The Gulag Archipelago:2
‘The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.’
Today (25 April) is ANZAC Day in Australia, and New Zealand. ANZAC is an acronym for ‘Australia and New Zealand Army Corps.’ It is perhaps the most significant public holiday on which a war (and those who fought in that war) is/are remembered in the two countries. On 25 April 1915 Australian and New Zealand forces landed on beaches at Gallipoli (Turkey.) The Allied objective had been to capture Istanbul (the capital of the Ottoman Empire.) However, the campaign was a tragic failure and resulted in almost 57,000 Allied forces being killed, and a similar number on the Ottoman side.
If there was ever a campaign that should have taught us the futility of, the horrors of, the stupidity of, and the suffering of war, then the Gallipoli campaign would be one of them.
Sadly, we did not, and have not, learned anything from that campaign. Indeed, today, ANZAC day is not just a remembrance of Gallipoli, it has become a remembrance for all those soldiers killed in wars that followed World War 1, suggesting strongly that little, if anything, has been learnt.
One of the underlying causes of war is our (human) predisposition towards dividing ourselves into camps of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This division gets intensified, so that ‘us’ are ‘good’ and ‘them’ are ‘bad’ or ‘evil.’
Such division is a nonsense.
If we are to overcome our easy eagerness for war, then we must listen to the innocence of children, such as Wendy and Natalie above, and heed the wisdom of writers, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
1. Ironic Cross can be ordered at https://www.lulu.com/shop/bruce-meder/ironic-cross/paperback/product-vnmeqq.html?q=ironic+cross&page=1&pageSize=4
2. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelego, Harper and Row, New York, 1974.