WITH the exception of some psychohistorians, very few researchers have systematically examined the impact of war on children. Few journalists have either--which is one reason why Time magazine sent senior writer Roger Rosenblatt on a "five-week, 25,000-mile odyssey" to write the cover story which forms the core of this book.
"There are places in the world like Northern Ireland. Israel, Lebanon, Cambodia and Vietnam that have been at war for the past twenty years or more," he writes. "The elements of war--explosions, destructions, dismemberments, eruptions, noises, fires, death, separation, torture, grief--which ought to be extraordinary and temporary for any life, are for these children normal and constant. Everything they understand, they have learned in an atmosphere of wildness and danger. Everything they feel and sense occurs in a situation where their lives may be ruined any moment."
This is indeed a book about childhood rent by war, but its main character, perhaps inadvertently, is an upper middle-class New York journalist who at times recalls the Ugly American, at times an Innocent Abroad, at times the best of the Peace Corps volunteers. The book begins with his conception of the "Story" and tracks him as he coordinates arrangements with Time bureaus in New York, Belfast, the Middle East and southeast Asia; takes in an enormous mass of unfamiliar, shocking material in a very short space of time; then tries to make some sense of it for newsweekly readers. When I finished the book, I remembered little of the several dozen children interviewed: what remained clear and moving was the portrait of a man who loves children, who went out on assignment (as so many writers do) driven by some motive he never came fully to understand and who wished above all to find some meaning in what he saw and heard.
What he saw and heard is fascinating: one wishes only that he had stayed longer and brought back more. First there are the kids themselves, whose accounts are alternately painful to read and hilarious. In Belfast, Elizabeth Crawford describes the killings of her mother, her brother and her grandfather, then is asked if she wants revenge. "Against whom?" she asks. In Lebanon, 4-year-old Samer is put on display by his father, a PLO colonel. "Who is Sadat?" prompts the father. "Sadat sold Palestine to Israel," says the son. "Who is Jimmy Carter?" "Carter supported Israel." This goes on until Rosenblatt asks the child what he'd like to do when he grows up. "I want to marry," says Samer. In Cambodia, Rosenblatt asks 10-year-old Ty Kim Seng to draw a self-portrait. The boy's father was shot by a Khmer Rouge firing squad; his mother died of starvation; the boy himself escaped from a forced child labor unit. His "self-portrait" is a picture of an airplane. "But where are you?" Rosenblatt asks. "I am the pilot," the boy clarifies. "We are flying to France."
Rosenblatt is a fluent writer with an evident respect and affection for kids. He describes their pictures and poems, their manner and dress without ever appearing to patronize them. When he attempts to analyze his data and to reach conclusions in a meandering chapter titled "Pausing With Telemachos," his writing turns self-indulgent in the extreme. "In their way, I suppose, the Khmer Rouge were followers of Rousseau," he observes in Cambodia (it is hard to tell how Rosenblatt meant this to be read), "the last, or the latest of the wild-eyed Romantics." Rousseau is in good company, for Rosenblatt strews about literary references the way a flower-girl does petals. In Hong Kong, the author recalls Coleridge; in Israel, Marianne Moore; in Lebanon, Homer and Graham Greene; in Athens, Pericles, George Orwell, Francis Bacon and Shakespeare.
There are some names I would have liked to have seen here--researchers such as Anna Freud, Robert Jay Lifton, Robert Coles whose work might have proved useful to Rosenblatt. As it is, Children of War tells us little more about the children than did the magazine article and does not go beyond the shallow assumptions of newsweekly journalism. There are the one-shot interviews with children pre- selected by the local Time stringer. (How representative are these kids? What social, religious or economic groups do they come from? Why have some lost close family members while others are just "of war"). There is the Time team: the reporter and photographer who race in and out of jet planes and Holiday Inns in the Third World at breakneck speed; the local interpreter and guide; the mandatory "expert"--an educator or psychologist who adds to the reporter's impressions the weight of social science. Then there is the Time style which prefers the snappy quote and the single encapsulating metaphor to a prose less flashy but more faithful to reality.
The result is a kind of Mission Impossible reportage, a whirlwind tour of childhood amid destruction, in which the author can write with satisfaction and without a trace of self- awareness, "After three days (of thinking through his experiences and interviews in Belfast, Israel and Lebanon) in Athens I was on my way to a generality. That was encouraging."
Journalism, a Time staffer once told me, derives from the French word jour and is not meant to last much longer than a day. Good journalism, however, does. It is disappointing that a writer of Rosenblatt's ability and sincerity, with the immense resources of Time behind him, did not produce that kind of work.