Reading About War: It's About Nurturing Empathy

Reading About War: It's About Nurturing Empathy
By James Mullan
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War and war memorial celebrations have been a major focus of late, due to the recent anniversary of the start of World War 1. To mark this occasion a number of excellent books have been published, giving both children and adults a wealth of new insight into this conflict. An overheard remark: “Why do we have to go on and on about the war?” uttered by a fed-up and jaded mother prompted thought on this matter. Up to a point one may share her view. There is just so much talk about both the first and second World Wars, such in-depth delving into the personal tragedies and the horrors of wars in general - is this amount of reliving the misery truly necessary? Common sense has to say “yes” – here’s why: Wars, all wars, terrorism and crime that result in the loss of human life are abhorrent. Hand to hand combat required ruthless courage. Repeatedly “going over the top” – i.e. repeatedly climbing out of the trenches to run at, and try to kill, the enemy drew on courage, blind determination and a level of almost crazed, indoctrination, ideology or other belief-fuelled detachment. In our times, however, with the tremendous advances in technology and the incredible sophistication of equipment designed to kill or injure, there is a far greater level of detachment from the enemy possible. Killing, maiming and torturing has become significantly ‘easier’; courage may not come into it at all. With the tremendous amount of practice and planning made possible, facilitated by the endless diversity in violent games on the market, murdering has been reduced to a game for many. The more these games are played, the easier it gets: the recent spate of killings of perceived “enemies” in schools the world over is proof of this. War, terrorism and killing are done more remotely in our times. There is less of a human face to the suffering inflicted. The enemy in any conflict is dehumanised to the point where killing is like scoring points, not a live human being lost and destroyed, merely an enemy pawn annihilated. News programmes carry reports of the horror of war zones in a sanitised, politically correct way with such relentless frequency that we have all become somewhat immune, jaded, untouched by the actual horror. It is not possible to go through these emotions every day without becoming hardened, unmoved to a certain degree by them. One day, we just turn over to the next page in our newspaper without looking or imagining the daily impact on real people, like us, in a war zone. It has become too much for us to bear. While our children do grow up knowing about the wars currently being fought in the world, this is unreal to them. Wars are fought in another part of the world, far removed from their lives. For a moment, every now and then, they may stop and reflect, prepare a shoebox or collect some winter clothes; the moment passes, however, without any real impact. No mark is being made. It is not their life, it is not similar to their lives, and they cannot think about it for long. And this is where reading comes in. Like nothing else on earth, reading takes you there. It forces you to experience and live through the fictional events, until you gain some personal understanding of what it was like – what it is like on a daily basis for so many fellow human beings. Reading provides the details that make the experience painfully real. Reading a book, mentally spending time being part of events during a conflict or war is very powerful. Through reading, the reader truly engages in the human cost of these wars, conflicts, crime or terrorism. Some books, especially thrillers, merely glorify some aspects and, like the games, they do not portray to deter; merely to entertain with the escapism of the subject matter – it being vastly removed from the reader’s actual life. Busy adults have to be forgiven for not wanting to be “entertained” reading about the plight of those trapped in conflicts. It hardly makes for light reading. Children are not different. Nonetheless, there are many outstanding fiction books set during such troubled times that are not all doom and sadness. Reading these works enables children to have an insight into what life really was, or is, like for the millions of children unfortunate enough to be “children” in the midst of such a historical event. Engaging with the reality and the challenges of these protagonists’ lives brings home the truth of war like nothing else. It is not the gory, but the minute familiar details of everyday life that really evoke the reality of lives lived amid war or conflict. If there is empathy for those caught up in wars; a clear understanding of the true price paid by every individual unfortunate enough to be somehow part of devastating and violent historical events – often by sheer geographical misfortune – there will come a will to avoid these events in future. Perhaps one day that will can be turned into a commitment to work together with peoples of all nations, races and religions to create a more understanding, tolerant and peaceful world. The future is, after all, in their hands. The first step is achieving some insight, a level of true understanding of what being there was like - the way hopes, dreams, healths, and lives, are affected and destroyed. Only the bravest of us actually go there to report back, to let us know the day- to- day reality of these events; their track record for survival is not good. No one wants to be there, much less take their own children there. But from the multitude of news reports are born the stories and the books. Talented writers take the bare facts and use them. With their works of ‘fiction’ they recreate a world we do not have to be in to experience. Without endangering ourselves we can learn and gain understanding, and from this understanding will come a commitment to try to stop future conflicts and wars. So “the war to end all wars” is fought on the pages of books, every day in many homes and classrooms around the world. Please encourage your children to participate. Some of the many excellent titles dealing with the topic of war and conflict in a manner appropriate for children are: Michael Morpurgo: There’s an Elephant in the Garden, Waiting for Anya ;Toro Toro Malala Yousafzai: I am Malala Anne Holm: I am David Michael Foreman: War Game, War Boy, After the War was Over Ian Serraillier: The Silver Sword Deborah Ellis: Mud City, Breadwinner, Parvanah’s Journey Michelle Magorian: Goodnight Mr. Tom, Back Home Ruth Eastham: The Messenger Bird Elizabeth Laird: A Little Piece of Ground Mirjam Pressler: Malka John Boyne: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas Shirley Hughes: Hero on a Bicycle Sally Grindley:  Feather Wars Finally the absolutely outstanding, but also silently harrowing books by Morris Gleitzman: Once ; Now; Then - unrivalled in their simplicity of delivery and so utterly shocking. A brilliant series about life under oppression is The Wind on Fire trilogy by William Nicholson. This list is just a small selection of the wealth of quality children’s fiction at our disposal. There are so many more. For children who prefer fact to fiction, the Usborne True Stories series provides a tantalising selection of war-related titles to choose from. Their books, comprised of shorter true stories, are also more manageable for those with good reading ability who nevertheless lack the inclination to read longer books.

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Agnes Holly, BA English and German; MA Comparative Literature; Hornsby Dipl Special Educational Needs. Agnes has more than 25 years' teaching experience in various roles ranging from university to nursery teaching, in addition to on-going work bringing up 5 children.  

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