I remember the sound of gunfire going off as we stood huddled under the doorway for protection from stray bullets. The roofs were tin, which couldn’t save us. I officially had my first introduction to war – a memory which would shape forever what I remember on Armistice Day.
It was Ivory Coast, and the exact moment at which this memory was forged is carved indelibly into my mind. It was midnight, the start of the new millennium. I know because the television was on, showing the celebrations occurring around the world at the exact moment we stood huddled against those bullets. I can still see the fireworks going off over the Sydney Harbour Bridge in my mind’s eye.
The sound of celebration, I remember thinking, was remarkably like the sound of gunfire. Even if it is the gunfire of drunken soldiers letting off steam in yet another dusty African civil war.
We came home to the peaceful green of New Zealand soon after that, and for a brief while I became a pacifist, reading up on the 800 conscientious objectors sent to prison during World War 2 in New Zealand. They were my heroes, until I started reading up on World War 2 and Adolf Hitler. Suddenly, saying the enemy was “fear and ignorance” or other such platitudes seemed too insubstantial to stand up to reality.
Reluctantly, I decided war is sometimes necessary, because man is sometimes evil. Like most of us, my ideas and ideals about war were then formed by movies, history lessons, and visits to old war sites around New Zealand or Europe. Like some of us, my thoughts about war were shaped by stories from a grandfather who survived it. Like a few of us, my opinions about war were molded by living in a country collapsing under the weight of a civil war.
We are 99 years from the first ever Armistice Day celebrations, and 72 years from the end of World War Two, and how I remember today is still changing.
Now, I have a son and a husband. The shape of war is no longer impersonal, the idea of good or evil no longer a generation removed. Those shapeless words, “sacrifice” and “service”, have been filled in, given flesh and blood, faces. What it took, the kind of people it took, to gain us the peace we enjoy, becomes more real every year.
In his best-selling book “Man’s search for meaning”, psychiatrist and neurologist Dr Viktor Frankl writes “there are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the race of the decent man and the race of the indecent”. He wrote as a Jew who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz. But he was not comparing Nazis to their prison-camp victims. Those words came after he wrote about the Nazi soldiers who tried, in whatever way possible, to show mercy in Auschwitz, and about the fellow-prisoners who out-competed the guards for cruelty in their own desperation to survive.
Decent people, and indecent people, can be found standing on every side of every battle in life, said Frankl. The only difference between them, he observed, was choice.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This Armistice Day, I am remembering the race of decent men who made the choice to earn us the priceless gift of peace, and the parents who raised them.
What, and who, will you remember?
This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz