The Sorrow of War. What a book title! The name even discourages me from reading it.
I don’t know why I stilled picked this novel and read it. Maybe I am always hoping there might be a way to escape from war from other people’s experiences.
This is an astonishing novel by Bao Ninh, from 1991. The very heartbreaking situations in the book are not much different from the nightmares I have every night from my own experiences and their effects on my personality. Even today, while reading the last part of the book I felt terribly sad and had to rest a while before I could think properly.
The experiences that we Afghans have had from different civil wars are much the same as those of Kien, the character of the novel. The book is about the experiences of a soldier during the war between America and North Vietnam. It focuses on how his life was affected and how everyone else was so affected that even their successes seemed like big failures. Through his memories of grief, he explains there is no winner in war. Both sides always lose. War is not something that just happens and then goes away, but it leaves its roots in the lives of people for generations. War brings hatred into human lives and finds its place in their minds for a lifetime.
The book goes back and forth about whether humans want war. If not, then why don’t they find any alternative to avoid it? The answer could be that states go to war when the situation is “indivisible” — it will be zero or all — there is no space for bargaining. This comes about with religious arguments over lands, terrorism, or the fight for a state’s existence, as in Vietnam.
There always seems to be a justification behind each war that has occurred in the world. But even so I could not find any convincing reason for the civil wars in Afghanistan.
Why is there always war? Why do we kill each other constantly?
Vietnam went to war because the North wanted the country to remain as a single state, and they were successful in that. But was it really a success? Kien tells us that after the victory the North Vietnamese did not feel they had won anything because they had lost so much. The feeling of having their unified country became meaningless. “If we found a way to tell them [the dead soldiers] news of a victory, would they be happier?” Kien asks his fellow soldier after the war was over.
He continues with the line that touched me the most in this book: “Killing is a career for the living, not the dead.” This statement is very strong when you think about it. Humans go to war to get peace. But when they are dead, there is no difference between war and peace for them.
Reading the book was very disturbing for me as I followed the author along with his experiences because it reminded me of so many bad scenarios in my own country, which is always in a state of war. From the day I was born, I have not seen my country peaceful. There have been civil wars, ethnic wars, neighboring country conflicts, terrorism, and so many other wars that my people have been through.
What are we looking for? Peace? How will peace come when there is always killing going on? Have we ever thought whether the people of any state return to normal lives once they have gone through war?
I still have nightmares of the bombing every night from years back during the civil war in Afghanistan. I see myself injured again and again every night because I was injured when I was six years old. Often I ask myself: “Am I a normal human being now?” I wonder.
Kien talks about the after effects of war on the people. Those who died were a big loss, but the living are not equally alive. Everything changes for everyone. Hopes and wishes for a happy life seem useless and unreal for those who have been through war. Soldiers or civilians, everyone loses something.
In my personal belief, war makes those who remain alive inhuman in many situations. A scene in the book recounts how “Kien began stepping through the bodies as though it were an everyday event for him…” It goes on to say “Scores of bodies lay in all imaginable positions; there was nothing to scream or take fright about; to him, in his hardened state, it seemed perfectly normal.”
This scene reminded me a recent situation at home in Afghanistan when I was working in my office preparing a presentation for the Ministry of Education to approve an education project. With four other competitors for this project, I was worried that I had to make our project the best in order to win approval for my employer and get a promotion.
On the same day five suicide attacks occurred in Kabul city. The insurgents entered the Ministry of Finance and a bank. There was constant firing among police and NATO and the insurgents. I heard the gun shots as if they were next door, but I was busy working.
Later during the day, the firing was still going on and I was sitting with some of my colleagues, laughing and discussing our normal issues. At once I felt how cruel we have become. Are we getting used to war? We Afghans are no longer afraid of death. People are dying near every corner of our city, yet we don’t even worry about them.
I felt how distant people become from humanity when they constantly witness inhuman acts. I was not worried that I could die, I was more worried about my presentation. Is this how human beings should feel? Is this how we should take life for granted?
Often I wonder if I will be able to forget all the shootings and bombings. Will I forget the dead that I saw when I was six? Will I ever get rid of all the nightmares? Will I always be waiting for the bad news that someone in my family or one of my friends is dead?
Kien makes an astonishing statement in the book when he says: “How could anyone destroy a school? Don’t they have respect for life anymore?” In war no one has respect for anything.
photo by Brian Howell