War = Dead children

One of the things about working with very young children for a long time is that when another 21st-century catastrophe is revealed to us, the first thing one tends to visualise is the actual concrete effect on children. And the thing about these catastrophes – wars, economic meltdowns, terrorist attacks, illegal occupations and so on – is that children are always affected, are, in fact, usually in the middle of what’s talking place – underneath the missile strike, in front of the tanks and bulldozers, in the middle of the family with the suddenly unemployed parents, walking to the shops past the wired-up suicide bomber, riding in the backseat of the family car as it approaches a US army checkpoint.

But it’s often still a shock, when we hear of one of the many disasters of war, to find out that children were killed in large numbers. It’s as though we are pulled up short, thinking in surprise over our morning muesli, ‘What on earth were children doing there?’ General media stats on catastrophes usually don’t mention the percentage of casualties who are children. A third of the population of the world is children so any act of war will always have among its victims a substantial number of children. Amid all the statistics of horror and human disaster we keep in our minds, how many of us know how many children have been killed in the past decade of the Israeli occupation of Gaza? How many children died in the September 11 attacks, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq or even in the Holocaust?

If you don’t know, take a moment to think about the possible reasons why before reading further.

The numbers go like this: during the past decade of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, at least 124 Israeli children have been killed and 1446 Palestinian children, including children shot at close range. In the eighteen months following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a third or more of the 100 000 civilians killed were children under fifteen years of age. In the Holocaust, over a million of the dead were children, though we can’t really know how many were murdered, perhaps as many as 1.5 million.

In the September 11 attacks, eight children aged from two to eleven years were killed, and 1300 lost parents. Rates of trauma and psychiatric illness in the latter are ten times the US average. (You can probably transpose these stats to the children of Gaza and Iraq as well.) After the attacks, the then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers, referred to the dead children as ‘among the first to give their lives in this war on terrorism’.

The Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara last week killed the fathers of 28 children.

Generally speaking, invading military forces don’t usually spruik their actions by announcing: ‘We will launch a targeted missile assault, destroy the hostile forces and kill 200 children’. ‘Battlefields’ are supposedly places where military forces struggle heroically for victory, like Agincourt. What they really are, more often than not, are ‘homes’. Homes are places where children live, and as children, we inhabit homes and other spaces in ways in which we never will again.

These days – these years – I find myself thinking a lot about the children I’m writing about. And I do that thinking because I think I have a responsibility to do so. Because thinking is better than not thinking. I’m not talking about spending my day in a state of unrelieved gloom or haranguing my companions about their moral responsibilities. I’m trying to speak out of a sense of responsibility, to create that sense in my own mind. I can go through the day thinking about many things, and most of them, let’s face it, will be astoundingly trivial. If I remember the impact of the expression of the boy Mohammed in the video above – and there’s one facial expression of his in particular which really moved me – I can let that govern my day.

I’m not on a boat bringing aid to Gaza. I am not anyone of influence or power. I am, as far as you’re concerned whoever you are, a mildly interesting blogger. Whoever I am though, I can use my time on the planet to think. And this week, and maybe next week, I can choose to think about Mohammed and the children like him. It may seem slightly weird to be thinking about a 12-year-old boy from Gaza while I was underneath the house this afternoon in twelve inches of crawlspace, lying in a pool of mud and cold water trying to fix that stupid bit of idiot hippie plumbing that someone put together fifteen years ago, but that depends on what you believe thinking to be. The few cubic inches inside your skull – to use Orwell’s phrase – are incredibly precious, and to be honest I’d rather have them occupied by Mohammed than a whole lot of other things, experiences or people.

I wasn’t always this way, just as I wasn’t always a lot of things. It was only when I saw, many years ago, photos of the aftermath of the Halabja poison gas attack, the streets of the town littered with the bodies of small children that I thought, ‘Ok. Got it. War = Dead children’.

Madeleine Albright’s infamous statement – a statement that she later tried unconvincingly to defend – bears looking at again and again I think. In the 60 Minutes interview, her face is a mask, almost robotic. If we ask ‘What could she have been thinking?’, the unpleasant answer is, she probably wasn’t thinking anything. That’s what makes it such a difficult response to grasp. Albright is embodying a kind of dreadful emptiness, a space where the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children registers only as a calculation in the debit column of her mental account book, a calculation that seems almost premeditated. Note that Albright doesn’t try to contest the figure of 500 000 and, in fact, doesn’t even seem surprised.

There’s something terribly broken about her response, as though we are watching a person whose mental faculties are so impaired that there is no awareness that some vital part of herself might be missing.

These horrible wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been going on for the best part of a decade. It seems like all we’ve ever known in this century are war stories. They’ve become the backdrop of our daily conversation, like the war in Nineteen Eighty-Four that has been going on forever and always will go on. We ourselves now seem to be in a state of perpetual war in other lands, wars our mighty leaders have skilfully turned into a state of siege at home, as though hordes of screaming Iraqi insurgents were beating on our doors with the butts of their AK-47s. When actually, the only people beating on our doors are children with nowhere to live.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. Thanks for that Clare. Working with young children is a fantastic thing, and one of the things it has brought home to me is that war is not just an insane activity it is a really fucking off-the-planet insane froot-loop mindless psychopathic waste of everything. I wanted to write more about the occupation of Gaza, but couldn’t fit it in. Gaza’s population is 1.5 million. 800,000 are children. 700,000 are under 15 years. The occupation of Gaza is many things, but it strikes me as a war on children. I have never been there, but if half the population of Gaza are children, they must be everywhere. Being in Gaza must be like being in a giant school yard. In media reports this is NEVER MENTIONED. The stats on child deaths in Gaza are official stats. The other day I read Robert Fisk, who is usually pretty reliable who claimed that the majority of the dead in the Israeli attack on Gaza 2 years ago were children, which would push the death toll of Palestinian children much higher.

  2. Stephen, I think this is a really good point. I remember reading that something like 60% of the Palestinian population is under 18.

    I don’t know if you saw this shocking report from a children’s human rights charity last week, but it accuses the IDF of torturing children. Tragically, the torture itself is unsurprising. What is surprising is the explicitly sexual nature of the allegations. Anyway, it made me think about the conflicting reportage we get out of these occupied lands.

    Children are regularly arrested in the occupied territories – most commonly for throwing stones at tanks. They are locked up without representation, denied contact with their families, for long periods of time. Israel claims these children are adults so we can assume they’re above age 16. (Palestinian children reach adulthood at a younger age, apparently.)

    Yet, a number of reports have emerged over the past few years evidencing that children as young as 12 are routinely tried in Israeli courts, resulting in jail sentences:

    More than 300 Palestinian children sit in Israeli prisons right now. The majority were arrested for throwing stones or being coerced into saying they did so, as is the case for 13-year old Al-Hasan Muhtaseb. Muhtaseb was detained for 8 days before he saw a judge. Of his ordeal, the Guardian writes:

    The teenager, Al-Hasan Muhtaseb, described how he had been interrogated without a lawyer late into the night, forced to confess to throwing stones, made to sign a confession in Hebrew that he couldn’t read, jailed with adults and brought before a military court. He was only released on bail eight days later, after considerable legal effort by several human rights groups. As he had signed a confession, he still faces a possible indictment for throwing stones – a charge that usually brings several months in jail but carries a maximum penalty of 20 years’ jail.

    By February’s end, Defence for Children International (DCI) found 343 Palestinian children were jailed. Israel “routinely prosecutes Palestinian children as young as 12,” but they are not tried as adults until they are 16. However, Israel’s legal system treats Jewish Israelis as adults at 18. Says a DCI report, poor treatment and even torture of Palestinian children are “widespread, systematic and institutionalised.”

    I guess this is a sorrowful and roundabout way of implying that part of the reason we don’t see child death statistics from these places is because the definition of child is decided by the occupiers. And those same occupiers are the ones that keep the tally.

    1. Thanks for that detailed response Jack. and Thank you for the links which I hadn’t seen before. As always you seem to have the research at your fingertips. You’ve raised some very crucial points. Firstly how violence becomes sexualised and secondly the ease with which judicial authorities can criminalise children and children’s activities. On the first point there’s an argument – to which I would subscribe – that rape and sexual assault are not just a sort of violent sexual activity, but more like sexualised violence. It doesn’t surprise me that there are reports of sexualised torture against Palestinian children. The entire military edifice of Israel is horribly rotten, and these things can happen because as you say, they have become institutionalised. What’s surprising – or actually not, come to think of it – is why it’s not screamed from every banner headline we’ve got.
      The strategy of convicting children as adults is an old one, though often unremarked. The US has been doing it for years. If you commit a capital crime when you are 14, but are not sentenced til you are 20, you can receive the death penalty. The Israelis though seem to be taking that strategy to unparalleled lengths by actually lowering the age at which you can be regarded as an adult. How cunning of them.
      To be jailed and tortured as a child for throwing rocks at a tank, seems to me to be an emblematic example of the institutional cruelty of the Israeli occupation of Gaza, and reinforces my thought that it is also a war against the children there.
      Generally speaking judicial systems everywhere seem to becoming more and more punitive toward children, and there seems to be public support for that. I remember the children who killed James Bulger in the Uk being surrounded by baying mobs of adults throwing stones as they left the courtroom in a police van. In NSW children who graffiti risk serious judicial punishment. I guess if children are conceptualised as malignant stone-throwing terrorists who threaten us with their violence then any action against them becomes possible. And our levels of fear, paranoia and panic must be sky-high.

      1. I completely agree that rape and sexual assault are sexualised violence. And to be honest, I don’t find it shocking that this is happening, I find it inevitable. It has always proved a thoroughly destructive and traumatising way of waging war and genocide on a people.

        You’re right, what is shocking is that it’s not common knowledge used as a catalyst for change.

        1. I agree. It’s not shocking on one level. That’s the
          really horrible thing about it. It’s completely predictable.
          I read yesterday in the Guardian that the US may have apprehended the guy who leaked the Wikileaks video. Right at the bottom of the article was buried the information that there was another video that the US has refused to release
          of a drone attack. 100 were killed, most children.A bomg
          going off in an Israeli schoolyard would not be a
          footnote I think.

        2. I want to add that rape and sexual assault are always violent and more about power than sexual gratification. The rape of women and indeed children in wartime remains largely unacknowledged and I would argue accepted.

  3. I think in spite of Albright’s attempts to back away from her comments that the truly terrible thing is that then, and now, governments and many of the people who vote for them do think the killing of children is worth it (what ‘it’ is, is worth pondering). They’ve just learnt not to make the same mistake as Albright and ‘fess up to it.

    1. Hi Trish
      I’m not sure on this one. I suspect that you are 3/4 right. I was thinking this morning that when Albright was asked if the price of 500,000 dead children was worth it, in her mind she actually was thinking of a pricetag of 500,000 IRAQI children. Is that worth it, she thought? Sure no problem. Her answer I’m guessing would have been very different if the cost had been measured in white American children. So I think that when our courageous leaders think of the dead children caused by wars, they have no difficulty with it really. The children are not white.

  4. The human calculations are definitely weighted; half a million of them does not equate to half a million of us. Surely this is the crude calculus of any war, especially from the invader’s perspective (if we can easily make distinctions between invaders and the invaded, which sometimes we can I think): We/me are worth more than them/you. If we are to think and live differently to a world of warring neighbors, then isn’t this weighted comparison the thing that must dissolve into something else? In which case, it would have to dissolve at many/levels wouldn’t it? From thinking about my children compared to yous (at family level), to thinking about our children compared to theirs (at tribal / nation state level).

    1. This is a very interesting point you’ve raised Luke. The calculus you are referring to is in many ways built into our lives in the way we are expected to live them. At whatever level we can address it is going to be politically useful I think; your children/my children. Even me/you I guess.

      recaptcha is weirdly sinister sometimes: ‘subhuman’ ‘was’.

  5. And it’s not just in war that we seem to care less for the lives of children: one death in a car accident on a country road in Victoria on the weekend attracts more attention than the thirty thousand children who die each day in the developing world from entirely preventable illness such as diarrhoea.

  6. Trish. Interesting example and I think several things are going on within it:

    * proximity — the stories about people closer to me are more captivating than those about people further away (to put it in the extreme, I am going to want to know way more about any story, pleasant or painful, related to my own children than those about other children)

    * theatre — the stories which are theatrical are more affective than those which are banal or plain; weird deaths, untimely deaths, etc are more captivating (to put it in the extreme, think of all the deaths in Shakespeare – we don’t go to see plots about dying of natural causes, but of un-natural, dramatic causes)… probably for very cathartic reasons

    I think we probably need proximity and theatre/catharsis in our lives, so if we care about the lives and deaths of those close and dramatic, I am not sure that this in itself is a problem.

    But the question that begs is: how to care for those who not proximate and who don’t provide us with theatre/catharsis? Maybe the answer is the definition of higher spirituality, or love, or compassion, or giving a damn.

    Making others closer, and giving their lives drama/plot, is one way of dealing with this. And that is where Stephen’s blog, youtube leaks, the narrative arts, amongst many other writings and discussions world wide, play a part.

    A story about someone dying of diarrhoea could be another.
    Stephen post to Mohammed’s Story is another.
    A story about shifting from you/me to side-by-side togetherness, and what is lost and gained in the process, at whatever level, could be another.

    (Not that all story-telling will do this. Some stories keep the other as ignored other – without proximity, without plot. Ala, Madaliene Albright).

    1. Ah Luke, what a marvellous and compelling update of Galtung and Ruge’s (1965) study ‘Structuring and Selecting News’in which they claimed that the more news conforms to four principles

      The more the event concerns elite nations
      The more the event concerns elite people
      The more the event can be seen in personal terms
      The more negative the event is in its consequence

      the more probable it is that it will become news.
      But the question you ask, the question that begs, is the one we need we need to answer

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