Tag Archives: war

Seven Thousand Miles

As a child of the eighties and nineties, my life consisted of the following:

  • A warm breakfast before school, preferably sausage and pancakes with a mountain of syrup.
  • A snack after school, preferably the sugary kind.
  • Nickelodeon
  • Skip-it.
  • More Nickelodeon
  • Rollerblading down the hill in front of our apartment.
  • Trips to my great-grandparents house on visits to Kentucky.
  • Grassy fields.
  • Fried meals.
  • Comfort.
  • More Nickelodeon

As a child of the eighties and nineties I assumed that others like myself were enjoying a similar childhood. Perhaps my neighbors weren’t making trips to see their great-grandparents in Kentucky, perhaps they weren’t playing Skip-It, or rollerblading down hills, but without a doubt they were experiencing a childhood. In the bubble of my mind and the shelter of my childhood, this experience was being had by all. It was not.

While I was watching cartoons and eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch on Saturday mornings, children seven thousand miles away in Sudan were experiencing a childhood that I, at 8, could never have fathomed.

While I was playing Aladdin on my Sega Genesis, there were children being pulled from their homes during the day or night, fleeing for their lives from men with guns and men with machetes and men with machinery. These children wondered and worried about their brother or sister or cousin or aunt or uncle or mother or father. They worried and wondered about family they might or might not see again. They wondered and worried about life and death and not if, but when they would be next.

While I enjoyed the comfort of light up sneakers, these kids walked for hundreds of miles, barefoot against scorching hot land.

Cinnamon Toast Crunch.


Reading stories about children who managed a strength to survive that I can’t even fathom has begun to put life into perspective for myself. Not everything and not everyone begins with a warm breakfast or Nickelodeon or roller blades. Not everyone’s reality is coming home to a warm bed, or coming home at all. The Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005) consumed the lives of two million people. Children were not immune to the chaos that this war and strife brought.


The Red Pencil, written by Andrea Davis Pinkney, tells the story of Amira, a 12 year old Sudanese girl living a normal life until the Janjaweed arrive. Torn from her village, she not only loses the person she is closest to, she also loses her voice, until a woman arrives with the gift of a red pencil.


A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story, written by Linda Sue Park, alternates between the two stories of eleven year old Nya and eleven year old Salva. Although they are experiencing life decades apart, their stories intersect when the life changing force of water brings them together.


Brothers in Hope: the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, by Mary Williams, describes eight-year-old Garang Deng’s determination to lead himself and 34 other Lost Boys from Sudan to the safety of a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Their journey continues from Ethiopia to Kenya, where (years later) they are given the opportunity to seek safety in America.

Fiction or non-fiction, these are the books and the children within that have stuck with me. These are the authors who help us to not forget.



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Summer of the Longbow

For some reason I always read more fiction in the summer. This summer I am falling back on the master of historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell, and his Grail Quest series, Archer’s Tale, Vagabond, Heretic, and 1356.


The setting is the Hundred Year’s War, a theater boasting armored knights in colorful coats of arms, castles, sieges, and the indomitable English longbow, a battlefield advantage so consistently discussed and lionized that it comes as a shock to look at a modern map of France and notice no English territories are left. Seriously, at least weekly one can turn on cable TV and watch an expert in medieval warfare (how many of these people can society support?) shooting arrows into an armored mannequin and breathlessly proclaiming the evident effectiveness of the bodkin point against a French dummy swathed in steel plate.
The long bowman was a triumph of brutal technology against the aristocratic desire to be seen around town charging other aristocrats with a lance. French knights fell in the thousands under storms of English arrows. And this happened on a few different occasions, proving the resiliency of fashion amidst the upper classes. Charging your enemy on horseback was the thing that knights were supposed to do. And if you died stuck with a half dozen arrows fired by a broad backed chav from across the channel, well, c’est la vie!

Besides the bad news for French knights, the Hundred Years War also witnessed the devastation of the French countryside at the hands of marauding bands of English soldiers looking for whatever wealth they could extract from farms, villages, and towns.  Oh, and throw the Black Death into the mix too. It took a hallucinating French teenage girl and an England exhausted by war to finally bring the whole thing to a close. When the dust had settled France was one big step closer to becoming the modern nation state we all know today. And the long bowman became enshrined in English identity, somehow inspiring people with the knowledge that you could invade a country and kill scads of tactically impaired rich guys, take some stuff, and then go back home? Anyway.

Cornwell’s books dive right into the horror and color of this period.  A likeable protagonist tries to sort out the mystery of his past and commits to a quest that could change the world. To ice this cake the author creates a great villain, the sinister Guy Vexille, a man so driven by religious passion he is capable of any evil. I normally detest Holy Grail conspiracy stuff, it’s all so ludicrous. But in this case, the principals involved are of a different time, and the details are wrapped in believable histories. All in all, this is summer escapism done flawlessly. Because the Hundred Years War was so long, something around a hundred years apparently, Cornwell actually wrote another book with different characters to explore the later part of the war and one of the last great English victories, Agincourt.


“But I don’t like long descriptions of people killing each other with archaic weapons!” you say. I guess there are people who might not like that. Thankfully you can get medieval without having to get medieval. Check out the Cadfael series of mysteries by the linguist-scholar Edith Pargeter who wrote under the name Ellis Peters, or the TV adaptation starring Derek Jacobi. You can feel the darkness and hunger of the period without all the stabbing and cutting and arrows flying around and all that. The books are very popular and anything with Derek Jacobi is good.



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The Remote War

Every now and then a book comes along that really helps me get a handle on current events. A foreign policy junkie like myself gets a fix constantly from the reams of info available online. But there is usually something missing. A few paragraphs and a carefully chosen photo can fill me on some event, sometimes only hours after it happens on the other side of the world. But those paragraphs usually aren’t able to capture that vital element in comprehension. I am talking about context.

That’s when Print throws open the saloon doors and swaggers back into the room. The Internet is wonderful and all, but good luck trying to parse out what’s happening in somewhere like Nigeria from a few news articles and a Wikipedia page.


Getting context and background on the shadowy enemies of Obama’s drone campaigns had proven very difficult until I found this book, The Thistle and the Drone,  by Akbar Ahmed. This remarkable work takes a historical and anthropological look at the tribal groups most likely to have their sleep interrupted by a hellfire missile. It’s impressive for a number of reasons. Ahmed’s encyclopedic knowledge on the topic was acquired by his own experience as a government administrator in Pakistan’s most notorious areas.  There, in the pre-9/11 world, the author learned the histories and organizations of groups like the Pashtun and Baluch. His own scholarly research further completes an expansive understanding of tribal societies and elements common to all sorts of cultures from the Scots that gave the English so much trouble so long ago, to the Chechens and Avars that resisted Russian imperial aims. Books like this only come along so often. Ahmed provides the background and nuance to center-periphery conflicts such as those raging in Waziristan and northen Nigeria. This book should be required reading, as inconvenient as its contents may be.


For more background on Pakistan and Afghanistan and the long chain of events that led to our never-ending war against people wearing sandals, I highly recommend Ghost wars : the secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll.

Any other news junkies out there that happen upon singular works that go beyond the headlines, please sound off. I am always looking for an edge, and I am sure the library has it.


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war is northless.

Today is the five year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq which launched the current war.  The casualty count of U.S. soldiers nears 4,000 and Iraqi civilian deaths number at least 80,000 (though varying estimates exist).  The cost in dollars rises by the minute.

Whether you agree with George W. Bush that these were necessary costs, you’re a Pittsburgher for Peace, or you’d rather follow Heath Ledger’s death, there is probably a subject heading to lead you to materials about the war that support your opinion. 

Whatever your position, some of the most undeniably compelling writing and comment about the war comes from soldiers themselves, as evidenced by last weekend’s conference “Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan — Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations,” an event modeled after the controversial 1971 Winter Soldier conference that involved Vietnam veterans.  The name “Winter Soldier” is a play on the famous opening to Thomas Paine‘s writing “The American Crisis:” 

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

Excerpts from last weekend’s Winter Soldier conference are available to hear online, and there are numerous books that contain personal narratives from many sides, including heroes, Army interrogators, Iraqis, embedded journalistsa pet dog and less-easy-to-categorize others.  A good amount of fiction related to the war also stocks the shelves.

 A situation as morally complex and with repercussions as serious as war (especially one with such contentious beginnings and with so many many many many scandals) can leave us confused or angry, but at least there’s some comfort in the fact that we can find resources to educate ourselves about it.  And, hopefully, it’s safe to say that, however we think we should get there, we’re all awaiting the day when we can commemorate an anniversary that marks the beginning of peace in Iraq.



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