Giving children an understanding about war: some thoughts

BillThe mother of Australian war historian, Charles Bean wrote when he was six years old: “Charlie dear, be truthful, and upright, and morally brave, I should like you to be brave in every way, but I care far more for moral bravery than for any other…”

The 25th April is ANZAC Day in Australia, the day Australia remembers the war dead. It is also now more than 100 years since the unsuccessful assault on Gallipoli in World War I by Allied forces, which resulted in the senseless slaughter of thousands of young Australian and Turkish men. Strangely, this defeat helped to form an Australian legend and a particular view of themselves as Australians. This happened in part due to the work of Australia’s official World War I historian, Charles Bean. This remarkable man changed the way histories of war were recorded world-wide when he insisted that history should include the ordinary soldier’s point of view. He also questioned the then current point of view that the brutality of war could be blamed on the bad ‘blood’ of a particular people, always ‘the other side’, the enemy. Bean was a highly principled man, a searcher for truth and I personally benefited from his moral courage, because this man was the respected mentor of my own father.

Children’s understanding of war begins with your own beliefs and values. How do you explain conflict, war and the nature of the human being? How do you teach children to deal with conflict in their own lives, to take responsibility, to show understanding and compassion but also see where action needs to be taken? How do you explain self-interest, the misuse of power, cruelty, stupidity and the crossing of unacceptable boundaries in ethical behaviour? Can you help them to understand that some ways of responding can be helpful – understanding, compassion, honesty, integrity – others can be less than helpful – blame, power-mongering, self-righteousness and the demonizing of an individual, or whole people rather than trying to understand the motivations of the leaders or the few that act in the name of that people. Our children learn a lot from what they experience in their own lives and in watching others, from seeing and experiencing love and caring or bullying and cruelty. War stories, like those of peace, are full of incidents where people act with compassion towards those who are their enemies, as well as where the tragic necessity is to kill, to survive oneself, or to protect one’s soldier mates or loved ones, despite the emotional pain and trauma associated with killing another human being. History has shown most people have to be taught to kill. All this is also part of understanding our humanity and the story of war.

Charles Bean’s biographer Peter Rees writes:

In a diary she kept, [Charles’] mother, Lucy, recorded her hopes for her eldest son when he was just six, concerned that he had a ‘besetting fault of selfishness’ that he needed to fight:

Charlie dear, be truthful, and upright, and morally brave, I should like you to be brave in every way, but I care far more for moral bravery than for any other…

I do not want to see you a rich man, or a man holding a leading position, as much as to see you a good, charitable man. You may be all, and I shall be happy to see you all, but the riches and position come after…you can be happy without them, but you cannot be happy unless you are good.

Be kind and unselfish. You Charlie my eldest, know the little talks we have had together about this.

(p.xv in Bearing witness. The remarkable life of Charles Bean, Australia’s greatest war correspondent. By Peter Rees (2015, Allen & Unwin)

Charles Bean did indeed become a man of moral and physical courage as he followed soldiers into the trenches of Gallipoli and the Western Front, willing to help those he accompanied, even as he observed, as historian, the dreadful tragedies that unfolded. He fought to get their stories told, with honesty, compassion and respect, not through glorification. His strength and direction came from his mother’s words repeated as he grew up: “Be truthful, upright and morally brave…you cannot be happy unless you are good.”

Our values lie beneath everything we say to children about the tragedy of war, whether it teaches them to have compassion and understanding, or to blame and de-personalize the enemy. To identify brutality, gratuitous violence and suffering is a necessary part of coming to know the reality of the world as we grow up. But it is a tragedy if we are not taught to understand the complexity of war and the ethical dilemmas of the individuals caught up in conflict, and taught to find the positive human qualities which reveal themselves in the struggle. As in everything we do with our children, we need mindfulness of our children’s ages in how we speak to children of war and conflict, those of the past, and those in the present.

In our multicultural world, we sometimes find that family members in the past fought on different sides. This can be a potent lesson in understanding war for our children. So my children’s grandfather would spend time in a British prisoner-of-war camp in Egypt where his captors, in exchange for him reading Dante to them in Italian, would teach him the English he would later use to immigrate to Australia. My children would learn a new language from a beloved Japanese woman, whose nation was implicated in the death, by starvation, of our greatly loved great uncle (pictured above) as a prisoner of war on the Burma railway. Sadly today my children also hear their own government being condemned for their treatment of asylum seekers and their children.

We have to find new ways to tell the tragic stories of war and its consequences, including about the refugees it creates. We have to find the appropriate times to share with our children, when they have the maturity to cope with tragedy. In the meantime we need to strive for the good ourselves, to show the moral courage Charles Bean’s mother urged in her son, and to recognise where it exists in others. To practice it in our conflicts at home so that when our children do meet the stories of tragedy and war they have also experienced that the world can be good.

Other resources

Helping children learn about dealing with conflict in family relationships helps them to understand better conflict in the world. Helping children deal with death in their own world, helps them understand the effect of death in the greater world: