Last winter I watched a movie that deeply disturbed me. In fact, I still have dreams about it. The movie is an adaptation of the book by Tatiana De Rosnay, "Sarah's Key," and is a devastating story of a family in Paris during the summer of 1940, rounded up to spend endless days in an overheated stadium and eventually transported to a concentration camp. When the occupiers arrive at her apartment to round up her family, little Sarah hides her two year old brother in a closet, for his safety. He dies in there. And Sarah spends the ensuing two thirds of the movie fighting to escape and return to Paris and release him, and then the remainder of the movie an empty vessel, destroyed by the fact of his death.
It was wretchedly inhumane to be a parent and sit through this movie. I'm positive it would be equally so if you are not a parent, but there is a depth of terror that you experience as a parent when faced with this type of subject because suddenly, you have so much to lose. There is literally no time after welcoming a child into your arms that you will be fully solitary again, and fear of mortality runs deep, because it involves you, plural.
This is about more than fear of mortality, though. It is fear of evil. I can handle all kinds of tragic, but evil? It wrecks me.
There is nothing, nothing preventing this from happening to me and my family that was not present in France in 1939. This truth struck me hard when I watched Sarah's Key, and I think it was because I was able to articulate a realization that has been slowly unfolding for the past several years:
The rise of National Socialism in Germany and its spread throughout Europe like an opportunistic disease and the ensuing murders, genocide, starvation, torture, scientific experimentation, and utter evil there happened in the recent past.
I've read many books on the holocaust and watched numerous movies and studied it many times in school and on my own and visited holocaust museums dedicated to ensuring that it never happens again, and always, always, I was utterly sure it would not. For WWII is in the past! It is ancient history. It was two generations ago and we are so much more civilized now. (Youthful arrogance). But of course, the older I grow the more I realize how bloody recent this era was. Seventy years is nothing. It's a heartbeat. It is yesterday. It is tomorrow. It is now.
I used also to be a pacifist. At no time and under no circumstances was taking up arms en masse and advancing into sovereign territory an ethical action. Now I believe the opposite. Under MANY circumstances is it ethical to fight WITH ARMS for what is good and right in the world, and indeed I consider it deeply unethical not to. What changed my mind? Maturity. Cognitive dissonance. Romeo Dellaire's book, Shake Hands With the Devil, outlining the world's apathetic non response to the Rwandan crisis and genocide. Mike Rossiter's Bomber Flight Berlin. Visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia when I was there in 1994. The movie Machine Gun Preacher (you ever want a trip down Morally Ambiguous? Watch that movie. With an open mind).
By no means do I endorse EVERY war, and in particular I do not in any way endorse the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (both of which have large numbers of Canadian troops deployed on active tours). (And please do not take that to mean I do not support said soldiers; au contraire. I do, indeed, and believe their job to be of the highest order). But here is the thing: at first glance in the mid 1930s, would fighting in Europe have seemed morally ambiguous? Indeed it would. And absolutely it was the first war in our country's history that involved killing so many civilians. Massive numbers. Droves. Is there a universal scale upon which ethics is measured, which tips when you fight for good but suddenly you are ensnared in the evil and stoop to a level previously unimaginable and entirely animalistic in its nature? Is there a threshold of death beyond which you are as bad as your enemy? Can we be good people and murder each other? Can we do it in the name of justice and goodness and call it ethical?
I would say: absolutely. But don't expect to come out unscathed. There's no undoing what has been done.
Can you look in the face of a child incorporated by war and say, I disagree with what is being done to you, yet I refuse to fight to make it stop and walk away unaltered? For that is evil, too. Passive inaction in the face of evil is complicit action on behalf it.
My grandfathers fought in that war in Europe. They were ridiculously young. Little boys, barely growing into their adult bodies, flying blind in a bank of fog~and for what? To be shot down out of the sky? To drop their bombs on the European countryside in repeated fruitless attacks that missed their urban marks. To kill too many civilians to count. To kill children in order to save children.
I'm very proud that my grandfathers fought. I'm glad they battled back a force of evil so black it still haunts us seventy years later, and which reigned so briefly and so strong. But you can see that I wrestle with the moral ambiguity in fighting at all. There is some pacifist still alive in me, in my bones. But there's also a resistance fighter.
I also wrestle with that black, evil force in me. The potential is in all of us to be Dalai Lama and also Pol Pot. Sometimes it is so hard to know, is action or inaction the ethical choice? Here, now, today. Without the hindsight of decades of analysis and combing of records and trying of war criminals.
Dalai Lama says, As compassion grows stronger, so does your commitment to the welfare of all beings, even if you have to act alone.
This is true. It is also true that to fight for a child to live, grow, learn, and love, is good. To take up arms in defense of that child; whether she lives in the Congo or in your own home, is good. Do we not all have the responsibility to defend and protect the small and vulnerable habitants of the world? Now, extend that. Do we not all have the responsibility to act defensively to protect an entire family, living in Paris in 1940? How about a Cambodian man in Angora Wat in 1975?
I can't get Sarah's Key out of my head. I just can't shake it; it returns to me in my dreams and it haunts me how recent it was, that all this happened. How much we cannot undo. How small we are, and how much we have to lose.