War’s failures repeat
After he could no longer buy food, Seita digs roots and catches bullfrogs, eventually resorting to stealing to feed his 4-year-old sister, Setsuko, when they are orphaned at the end of World War II.
Whether threats of war are more urgent, or if there is a time of reprieve and further diplomatic efforts, our call is to bind the wounds of war and to speak out about the idolatry of violent force.
Grave of the Fireflies, a 1988 Japanese film, reveals how war harms the most vulnerable as adults descend into callousness in their own struggles to survive. The film powerfully displays how no side is honorable in its belligerence.
Animation allows the film to show war’s effects on the children in scenes in which one would not want child actors to participate: Seita visiting their mother just before she dies of burns after U.S. firebombing, Setsuko being reduced to skin and bones despite her brother’s efforts to save her from starvation, Seita losing the will to live without Setsuko to care for, and dying in a train station while adults pass by pretending not to see.
Horror welled up, not to be quelled by a sense that it was partially fiction. Such scenes surely occurred and continue to occur as children are caught in conflict zones.
And yet too often our leaders and neighbors seem to believe events will turn out differently when they propose military interventions.
This is not a new struggle. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-born American rabbi writing with World War II fresh in memory, recalls how the biblical prophets not only called war immoral but also futile.
Heschel writes that “the most astonishing thing in the world is the perennial disregard of the impotence of force. What is the ultimate profit of all the arms, alliances and victories? Destruction, agony and death.”
Yet, in the face of threats, people have time and again relied on military might. Heschel calls this idolatry — worship of violent power.
U.S. leaders may speak of concern for those being harmed by their government in Syria, and of Iran’s nuclear program as a threat, but it is arrogance to think military actions will improve even the worst situations globally.
Yet a question haunts us still: What to do in the face of suffering, especially that of children?
The global church can take action to encourage a peace agreement in Syria, a group of international Christian leaders argue in a statement released in late September.
“Humanitarian assistance is a vital aspect of the churches’ mission and solidarity with those suffering,” the leaders write. “Such aid also contributes toward a process of reconciliation.”
Whether threats of war are more urgent, or if there is a time of reprieve and further diplomatic efforts, our call is to bind the wounds of war and to speak out about the idolatry of violent force. Given the uncertainty of human events, we cannot trust in our own might — even when the voices are many and loud calling for military action.
We can remember with the prophets, as Heschel writes, that often “history is where God is defied, where justice suffers defeats.” Yet we cannot lose hope.
We may not be able to end the calamity that is unfolding, but we can at least refrain from further destruction.
Through material aid to those in war zones and refugee camps, not through arms, we can show compassion to the vulnerable.
And we can cling to the vision of the prophets of a world where swords become plowshares and training for war ceases. And a little child leads us.
Celeste Kennel-Shank is a minister and community gardener in Chicago.