Roger Rosenblatt

The Children of War

VTR Date: September 29, 1983

Roger Rosenblatt of Time Magazine discusses recounts his journey to five war zones.


GUEST: Roger Rosenblatt
VTR: 10/26/1983

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Whether a child shall lead us, and if so, then where? The children of war, themselves, wear so many faces, reflect so much that is often so far more humane or angry than the feelings we adults permit ourselves. But a recent book promises well to touch passionately each reader. Its title: “Children of War.” Its author: Roger Rosenblatt of Time magazine. In it, he recounts a journey to five war zones and their child victims whose fate documents man’s inhumanity to man.

And so, Mr. Rosenblatt, I ask you here today, touched deeply by your book, and interested, fascinated by the questions that you raise right at its beginning, that I gather you intend to answer. Who are these children? What and how do they think about the world? What opinions do they hold of their parents, of adults in general, of each other? What does friendship mean to them? Honor? Loyalty?…and so on. Did you find your answer to these questions?

ROSENBLATT: Not to all of them. Most of these questions were grandiose questions. I knew I had – or at least I felt strongly that I had – a subject worth exploring. And I came upon the subject almost accidentally. I was watching the television news one night and saw an Iraqi boy of three or four crying in the rubble. You could see he wasn’t crying out of physical pain, but out of a vast bewilderment, almost an historical bewilderment. And when I saw him – you remember the picture of the Vietnamese girl taken during that war, 12 or 13, running towards the camera, her clothes burned away by napalm – those two images fused and then the obvious: There are places in the world that have been at war 15, 20, 25 years; therefore, the children growing up in these places have known nothing but war in their experience. And the simple-minded question: Who are these children, and what are they thinking?

Now, beyond that, all those other questions (the ones that you’ve just read) were going to be…it would be wonderful if I could touch on them, but I had no idea what I’d find. I wanted to take this journey to the war zones, ask straightforward questions to which I did get straightforward answers, and see if I could learn something about us in the process.

HEFFNER: Learn something about us. I wondered whether the children weren’t a metaphor for all of us.

ROSENBLATT: I think sometimes we treat them as a metaphor for all of us. We certainly use them as vehicles for our self-exoneration from time to time. I saw in these places – as you know, I went to Northern Ireland, to Israel, to Lebanon, and I spoke to Cambodian children and Vietnamese children – in each of these places, children were used as weapons. Not always the same kinds of weapons. The Vietnamese children were given grenades during the war. They became literal weapons. The children in Beirut, the children in Northern Ireland, were put at the heads of parades, at the heads of street demonstrations, as symbols of innocence. So they become metaphors, strong metaphors, metaphors of some exculpation on the parts of adults. But they are also usable in a context of war. In a context where weapons are indispensible, the children are indispensible.

HEFFNER: But, for you, weren’t the children metaphors for the adult world?

ROSENBLATT: yes. It grew that way. I didn’t think about it as clearly in the beginning as I did when I came to write the book, in a sense took the journey over again in my mind. As you know, the responses that I – largely, not exclusively, but enough to make me feel as if I had heard the truth – the responses I got from the children were charity, decency, rationality, fair play, the desire for peace above all.

HEFFNER: But not always, as I read the book.

ROSENBLATT: Not always, no. And there were enough exceptions to prove the rule. That’s what I wanted, in fact. If I had not seen the exceptions, I would have felt that I was…and it was too quick a trip to know that I was getting the truth anyway. And I was an amateur observer. So all of these things led do self-doubt – which gets back to your question about a metaphor – was when I had seen the majority of the children express these (different to me) unexpected feelings of peace, of forgiveness, of common sense. I wondered if I was seeing a uniquely sanctified group of people. And, of course, I concluded I wasn’t. Why should it be given to me to travel in a particular year and find people who might be responsible for peace on earth? I didn’t believe it; I don’t believe it now. What I did think I saw, and do still, was a special stage of life. A stage of life through which everyone passes. A stage which, heightened in the worst of circumstances, as are these war zones, then becomes something that one can recognize in everyone. This gentleness that the children spoke clearly – I didn’t do anything special to elicit it – if there hadn’t been some residual gentleness in me, I would have not responded to it. And therefore, the connection between the adult world and the world of children was made.

HEFFNER: Why do you say “stage of life?” Do you literally mean that the child in us disappears?

ROSENBLATT: I don’t think it disappears, but I think it goes through an awfully good job of hiding. These are, I say again, these are the observations of an amateur who saw for the first time these situations. But why is it the children change? A boy, a Palestinian boy I met who told me that he wanted to be a doctor. And I…a simple question, a hypothetical question, “If a wounded Israeli comes to you, would you function as a doctor or a soldier?” He said, “A doctor.” I believed him, wholeheartedly. Eight months later, I returned to Beirut during the Israeli invasion and the bombing of Beirut, asked him the same question; he gave me the same answer. I believed him then. But that time he was carrying a gun; he was patrolling a front; he was in uniform, and we were being shot at. And I never had in my life so clear a demonstration of history encompassing you. On the one hand, you had an assertion of individual will; on the other hand you had history saying, “Not a chance.” So, also for the first time in my life, I saw tragedy. Not tragedy in books, but tragedy as it’s proved on the pulses. And it was impressive. It was, if not heartening in a sense of a sentimental, hopeful way, it gave me the feeling that this is a capacity in everyone. A capacity that changes. After all, the children with whom I was speaking were the children of people who at one time had been children of war. You’re a child of war. Every generation is a child of war in one sense or another. How does it change? Maybe the acquisition of territory. Maybe the acquisition of physical size, power, politics. All these things. And maybe – and this is the saddest of all – maybe it changes. Maybe the children of war become the parents or the warriors, out of an act of homage, of honoring their parents. “My Dad fought in a war, I’m going to fight in the same war.” That becomes the saddest element of all. And that, again, is where you watch history envelop the individual.

HEFFNER: And yet you demonstrate that children aren’t always seeking vengeance because their parents are killed.

ROSENBLATT: No. In fact, quite the reverse. I didn’t know it when I started out on this trip. I didn’t know what thesis they would give me. If they had told me that they were all full of hatred, I would have written it down, try to report it faithfully. If they had been benumbed, as I more expected, by these experiences, I probably wouldn’t have had any story at all. But the tone was struck in Northern Ireland. A girl, Elizabeth Crawford, 15 years old. A beautiful girl. A girl – sometimes you see a child in whom you can envisage a whole history of a civilization. I don’t mean beautiful in an absolute sense. I wouldn’t know whether she was beautiful or not that way. But she had…she spoke for the poetry not just of Northern Ireland, but of Ireland itself. She was sitting in a Catholic school with crosses and other symbols of faith on the wall. She had lost in what they call The Troubles, had killed, grandfather, brother, and her mother, all three. Her mother in a classic Northern Irish death, caught in the crossfire between the British soldiers and the IRA. They had to do an autopsy on the woman to determine who actually had killed her, as if that mattered to the child. And I asked this girl, “Doesn’t all this diminish your faith in God?” sitting in this school, as we were. She said, “Not in God, in man.” And I said, I told her the story of a boy I met before her, a boy named Paul Roe whose father was gunned down in the hallway of his house, and who met me in the company of a little friend named Joseph. And Paul, when he started to tell me about his father’s death, broke down – by the way, he was the only child among all the children with whom I spoke who did so. Most of them would answer not harshly or hard, but quite directly, no matter how personal or painful the matter of the question – in any case, I said, “Well, how do you feel about your father’s death now?” And before he could answer, his friend, Joseph, piped up and said, “Revenge. It’s revenge you want, isn’t it?” And Paul looked sheepishly at his friend, Joseph and said, “Aye, revenge.” But you could see the answer was insincere. And I got him alone later and we talked about sports and other things, but he knew where I was leading. And I said, “That business about revenge. Is it really what you want?” He said, “No. Nothing’s worth killing someone.” When I asked Elizabeth, this girl, after telling her the story of Paul Roe, the one who had lost all three in these Troubles, “Don’t you want revenge,” she looked at me as one would look at a fool and said, “Against whom?” I didn’t know it then, but that was the story. And the rest of the trip was an elaboration on those remarks.

HEFFNER: It’s so strange to me, though, that it is as if you made of children another species. How can you do that? I mean, perhaps you feel that you don’t do it. But it seems to me as though these were individuals set apart. These were children, and then perhaps you might have said you had Palestinians and you had Israelis and you had Americans. These were children.

ROSENBLATT: I had feelings sometimes that I was looking at another species. And this made me very anxious. I wasn’t looking at a different species in the terms of children themselves, but children under these circumstances. I became persuaded fairly early on in the trip, and more persuaded as the journey continued, that if I were to airlift these children from all their war zones, plunk them down in a neutral place, that they would recognize each other, without speaking, only for the experiences that they had undergone. No, I did feel as if I was looking at a special group of children, and one remarkably different from American children, for example. Much older. And different from their parents as well. Older than their parents.

HEFFNER: Do you have reason to believe that American children under that kind of stress would be markedly different from the children of war you saw?

ROSENBLATT: No, I think they would be the same. And, in fact, I wouldn’t dismiss America from this consideration out of hand. Slum kids grow up in warlike conditions. I saw a housing project in Newark that looked as bad as any bombed-out housing project I saw in Beirut. They suffer poverty, deprivation, the same kind of internal wars. The difference in the United States is that a child growing up in the slum can cross the tracks or go into another neighborhood and see a kind of normality that’s different from his own. He can respond to it two ways: He can wind up seething with resentment, or he can emulate it. But for the children in the war zones there is no other side of the tracks. There’s no other neighborhood. And the cohesion of the children, I think, is due to this. But I think children in America would have responded the same way to the same conditions.

HEFFNER: What are the, in your estimation, what are the areas of impact upon children? What changes? I was taken by the fact that you noted that when you talked to people in the psychological professions in the various countries that you visited, they didn’t really identify some strange things that happen to these children. I mean, you didn’t have a neurotic population. You had a different population. But how would you summarize what happens?

ROSENBLATT: I’m not equipped to do it. I don’t know enough about it. And I can’t imagine that for some of these children that they could grow up without having terrible nightmares. The Cambodian children, as you know, one child forced to use a portable guillotine invented by the Khmer Rouge. Children using that on children. I don’t know how a child could grow into an adult without bearing terrible emotional scars from such a thing. And yet it was very interesting, even there I met a terrific psychologist named Neil Boothby, who is from Harvard, who was working in a camp in Thailand. And he was working, in fact, with a girl who did use that portable guillotine and eventually talked about it. She didn’t speak for a year when she had arrived in the camp. And she had arrived starving. And he was telling me that our odd, clumsy Western practice of getting people to talk about their troubles does apply in the Far East as well; that he felt that it was doing them some good to be able to at least get out in the open air those things that ought not to allow, even in the imagination. We don’t know yet the extent of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. When we do, we will have the first true analog to the Holocaust. And the depth of cruelty, as that guillotine suggests, I don’t know how a child could live with that, and grow up into adulthood without carrying a great deal of emotional baggage.

HEFFNER: Emotional baggage that differs from what the rest of us carry, you’re suggesting, because we’re so far removed from that experience?

ROSENBLATT: I think the experience has done two things: It’s given them that hardship that we were talking about before. It’s also given them a sense of urgency; of real life and death. And that, in ways that I saw, did some good. I don’t think war does anybody any good, but I think the way these children responded to it was good. I don’t think it had to do with any innate virtue. I resisted this throughout, and I resist it now. I tell that story about Coleridge taking a baby from a pram and insisting that the baby tell him about heaven. I wanted to let that nonsense go. At the same time, I couldn’t ascribe this all to a rational process, but I thought a certain amount of reasoning was there. I thought children are born powerless into the world. They have nothing. We tell them how to dress, where to go, how to walk, what to think. And here were situations where children were born into an absolutely irrational world, in which their parents themselves were the carriers, the emblems of irrationality. Father’s coming home ranting wildly at night, swearing vengeance, picking up a gun and going out in the morning. What weapon does a child have in that atmosphere except to resist it perhaps for the opposite characteristics? To offer gentleness instead of violence. Reason instead of the absence of reason. But it can’t be all that too? It has to be something that’s born in you. And maybe where these two things meet in an individual are the places where we’d most like to be. Maybe this comes back to what you were saying at the start. That that’s the stage of life one ought to pay most attention to because it’s the one most valuable, most useful to us as adults.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, you mentioned Coleridge. And I was taken with that. And because I had the feeling otherwise that there was some effort on your part, or necessity, real need on your part, to endow these children with a sense of noble savages. I thought sometimes when I was reading “Children of War” that I was reading Rousseau. And there was a dividing line that you created for us between children and the rest of the world. And I wonder if that was essentially an emotional reaction on your part.

ROSENBLATT: I don’t believe so. One writes a book and sends it out. But I don’t believe so. I don’t think I created anything that wasn’t there. And there is a dividing line between these children and the world around them, and the children and their own parents, and sometimes their own families. You know, in the Middle Ages, parents inured themselves against developing too much affection for their children because of the high infant mortality rate. These kids have a high parent mortality rate. And yet, the way they look upon their parents is the strangest thing to watch. With this delicate admixture of love, of caring, of hostility, of suspicion (because their parents are the ones responsible for the weeping in the streets), in a way, as I said, it looked, sometimes the way we see our friends as parent of brain-damaged children talk about their children. Great love, great pride, great regret, great fear that it could all be taken from them. But the lines were there. These weren’t noble savages. They were noble people, but ht others were the savages.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting that you say that. What comes, besides a book, from such a venture? In terms of your own thinking about man and God? A corny question, but I couldn’t help but think of that. Having gone through that crucible, what in the world do you do when you come back?

ROSENBLATT: That’s my question. So, if it’s corny, we share it. When I got back I was not much good to anybody. I don’t know if I’m much good to anybody now; but then I knew I was not. I was very close to my family, but did not feel like speaking very much, and wanted to look at the pictures that had been taken on the trip and at my notes, and play the tapes over and over again. It was a ritual of preservation. I wanted to know exactly the answer to your question. And I guess the clearest answer was this: That the only thing I came to was that I realized I had been privileged to see life at its most intense moments. That if I could – and there’s nothing more than a book in this – if I could record faithfully what I had seen it might be a service. At any rate, I felt impelled to do it, be of a service or not. I’d seen life at its best, from what I thought, and life at its worst, and coming together. And I had seen and heard expressions of conciliation, of good sense, and sublimity from people who have no business saying such things. They say so because of a combination of things in themselves, and because of the way life has treated them.

HEFFNER: Roger, speculation: If you could imagine yourself having made this odyssey 40 years ago, 100 years ago, what do you think you would have come back to 10 years later, 20 years later? What kinds of human beings?

ROSENBLATT: At the end of this journey, I turned bitter on myself, having seen Beirut, and went through a speculation that comes to answer your question. I asked myself, “Who am I kidding?” Pure blindness, a concentration on the children, had diverted me from the facts of history. Why should I assume that these children would be any different from their forebears? They will be enveloped. Wars go on. We are our wars. War is the way nations are made up, but the way the world spins. And this I believe. And that is the hard part. Hard in the sense of adamancy. But I saw something else too. I saw the voices that said no. I saw the struggle of individual conscience of very small people saying no to history, not me. I saw, as I said before, tragedy. Not tragedy in Shakespeare, but tragedy in current events. And one comes away from that, as I would have 40 years ago or 80 years ago or 800 years ago, as you would have, I think, and would in the future, not depressed that the world is coming apart, or at least no more depressed that the world is coming apart, than impressed at the world’s capacity to regenerate itself. That’s what I saw.

HEFFNER: The world’s capacity to regenerate. You mean to survive?

ROSENBLATT: I mean to survive and flourish. It was more than survival. These children didn’t survive as animals in a savage situation, in a jungle.

HEFFNER: but clearly, Roger, other children, other generations of children have survived and become not the children of war but the parents of war.

ROSENBLATT: That’s true. And others have become Gandhi, and others have become Martin Luther King. As I say, I did not ever believe that I was seeing something that had been shown to me that hadn’t been shown to anybody else before. But I believed I was seeing…That’s why this trip, which actually was a short trip, relatively short trip, had no meaning in time for me. I felt I was seeing something that was…I felt in many ways that I was going to hell. And I was seeing something essential there. And the…what I saw was far more impressive than it was depressing. But it was, in a sense, the essential battle through which everyone goes. I agree with you. I don’t know that the children with whom I spoke would not turn to be warriors by themselves. I must tell you that I don’t feel the ones with whom I spoke would be, because I saw them, because I can hear their voices as I speak to you now. But I have no feelings that I saw the one group that are going to be the peacemakers.

HEFFNER: Do you really think that if you were to look at a nursery filled with children today, and then 20 years from now see them again, that they would not have advanced – poor word. Not advanced. Declined perhaps – from the innocence of childhood to what we are today? I mean, I mentioned before that man’s inhumanity to man…I must say that as I read “Children of War” I could not help but think – not “There but for the grace of God go I” – but “There go I.” There go we all, all of us. And I wondered whether you felt that way too.

ROSENBLATT: I did feel that way. I guess I felt equally that it would go in both directions. See, one of the things that you want to concentrate on when you make this kind of inquiry or ask this question, is why are you doing it? You never know the exact answers to these things. But I think one of the reasons that I did it is that I felt – I didn’t feel like anybody special; I wasn’t anybody special – I felt like a representative adult, and I was speaking to children whom I began to believe were representative children in these circumstances. And I realized that one of the things that pushed me on this journey was the fear, the shame of abusing what we control. There’s enough of sin, there’s enough shame in abusing that which we don’t control. But when you have a child come into the world, and you have his life entirely in your hands, and you shape the world so as to destroy that life, that seems to me abuse of the highest or lowest order.

HEFFNER: Roger, just a few minutes remaining. Fair question, I think – maybe you’ll feel otherwise. Did this odyssey, did this journey, perhaps make you a pacifist?

ROSENBLATT: No. Nor was I a pacifist when I undertook it. I’m probably more of a pacifist now because I’ve seen something. Once you see it you don’t erase it. But no. Certainly had I been old enough I would have fought – not gladly in the sense of a sentimental or foolish sense – but gladly in the sense of rightness in the Second World War. The American Civil War was worth fighting, necessary. I believe in just wars. There are just wars and necessary wars.

HEFFNER: So did the parents of each of the children you saw.

ROSENBLATT: Yes. Yes, that’s true. But what I was seeing was above the question of a particular war at a particular time, or the rightness of a particular war at a particular time. I saw the effect of the whole enterprise on a whole stage of life. And there I must say that I lost all feeling of whether or not I would be a pacifist here or there or whether I would approve of this invasion or that battle. I saw lives. They spoke to me. I was passing through. I was nothing to them. They were a great deal to me. And it became more important to get their words right through this than it did for me to decide what side I’d be on in a particular war at a particular time.

HEFFNER: But don’t we have to, at some point, ultimately, make a connection between this kind of experience and the political decisions that were made?

ROSENBLATT: We could also make a connection to the things that could stand between us and those necessary political decisions. The children I spoke with were not sentimental fools in any sense. What they spoke for was rationality about all. They were not lying back and saying, “It’s fine with me.” A girl named Hadara, with whom I spoke in Israel, after having been traumatized by a terrorist attack on a family to which she was very close, formed a peace conference between Arabs and Jews in her school. It failed. I said to her, “Well, what did you do?” She said, “I walked out of that conference. I asked the Arab children if they understood the position of the terrorists.” She said, “They said, ‘Yes, I do.’ I couldn’t speak to them.” She said, “I walked out.” And then she said, “But I went back. I would do it again.”

HEFFNER: Then I guess that sense of doing it again is what you were really talking about here in terms of the ultimate reason of these children of war.

Roger Rosenblatt, I do appreciate your joining me today on The Open Mind.

Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”