The silent desperation of Kampuchean refugee children huddled together in a Thailand border camp was one of the many tragin things I witnessed during the International Year of the Child. When I returned from that trip I remarked that it was an important visit to have made but an experience I clearly did not wish to repeat.
Peter Townsend, in "The Smallest Pawns in the Game," forces you to repeat over and over similar experiences in his stories of thousands of children around the world brutalized by war.
He leads you through an emotional obstacle course; each story of victimized children from ancient history to the present day is more devastating than the previous account. "Alas, from Herod to Hiroshima, from Pharoah to Biafra . . . the martyrdom of children goes on." Stories of sultans and kings massacring children in the first or even the 14th century seen distant and remote. But Townsend documents similar atrocities in the 20th century.
Television has numbed our senses with the sterile and even entertaining way it deals with war or killing. People on TV do not bleed profusely or have limbs ripped off and brains literally blown out. Townsend does not allow you to escape into the unreal world of TV war. He vividly describes the atrocities of war, focusing on what it can do to children.
A Sudanese child during wartime was one of many "whipped and skinned and hung from trees" after being beaten with a leather-thronged lash. "The skin breaks and bleeds. Then the brute, or another, takes a knife, presses the blade to the weals and flays the skin from the child's back. The flesh is raw, the pain consuming."
Townsend continues until you want to scream or swear you'll never be indifferent to war again.
The book indeed has a message, a cause. It is a treatise against war as seen through the lives of its most vulnerable victims, the children. This makes it difficult to dismiss the question of war as an academic argument.
Townsend painstakingly attempts to avoid ideologies and generally succeeds. Friend and foe, fascists and democracies alike must share the burden of guilt along with all religious faiths.
When the children speak, the stories are poignant and sad. A little Korean boy telling about his younger brother's illness and death said, "Prior to the war, my grandfather would have done everything to save him. But now there was a war and no grandfather."
A little Russian girl said, "I saw a list of people who had been shot and read Daddy's name there."
A young South African boy who was beaten and imprisoned and saw four of his friends shot dead during the student demonstrations in Soweto said, "After that terrible time in prison I lost faith in men."
One of the few accounts that offers a light touch is the story of Santiago, who was confined to prison in Equatorial Guinea for five years. During this time his young wife had a baby by another man. When Santiago was finally released he hugged his wife and the baby girl. Townsend asked if he felt any resentment toward the child. Santiago replied, "None at all . . . all children in Africa are considered a grace." Indeed this appears to be the heart of the entire book -- all children everywhere are a grace.
Thus Townsend paints new images of legendary war heroes, stripping away their mantles of noble exploits and exposing vicious murderers of children. No one escapes such a label. It is affixed on the Hitlers and Idi Amins but also on present-day military men.
An American pilot described his briefing on his last mission in Vietnam. "Go straight in with napalm bombs first, then fragmentation bombs to look after the fugitives. And have no fear gentlemen; the enemy defenses are practically nil; there are only women and children."
The smallest pawns in the game" are not only those who are physically destroyed but those survivors that bear permanent emotional scars. Townsend tells of Polish children captured during World War II and later sold, Finnish children deported to Sweden for protection, Greek children kidnapped and sent to neighboring communist countries; children uprooted from their families and their culture; children caught in the throes of wars of independence, civil wars and apartheid; children of the Middle East and Belfast bearing arms and living off hate.
This devastating chronology of historical events is designed to awaken our sensibilities to the horrors of war. It succeeds in doing that even if you only read excerpts. If you read even a little more it will wrest from you some level of commitment toward the preservation of peace.
It is a difficult book to read because it tells you much more than you want to know about war. But it's an important book. If only it could be required reading for every presidential and congressional candidate and all those military men who sit in air-conditioned board rooms and strategize on how to destroy mankind.