Editor’s Note: Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean-American author of “Death and the Maiden,” along with a wide variety of other plays, fiction, poetry and essays, is the Walter Hines Page Professor Emeritus of Literature at Duke University. His most recent book is “Darwin’s Ghosts,” a novel centered on human zoos. He lives with his wife Angélica in Durham, North Carolina, and in Chile. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Are we forever doomed to be warriors, wired from birth to be belligerent? Or is there, deep inside our species, an equal propensity toward peace?
I found a tentative answer to these questions that have vexed humanity through the ages when I was no more than a child growing up in Queens in the late 1940s. At about the time when it turns out that Donald Trump, a mile or so away, was taking his first steps in life, I found myself at the age of 7 or so, fiercely engaged in a street-level cult of war that he would might well approve of today, given his militaristic posturing and bellicose language.
But Trump’s Queens was, in that era of rampant discrimination, almost entirely white, whereas I resided – thanks to my Argentine father’s work for the fledgling United Nations –in an apartment complex called Parkway Village, a multicultural, multinational, multiethnic enclave. And the most unlikely place in the world for any sort of conflict between children or adults, for that matter, to find fertile ground, because it was thought of as a unique experiment in diversity – international, linguistic, racial – supposedly projecting a utopian vision of planetary harmony.
Alas, it was not harmony I sought as I roamed the gardens and open spaces of Parkway Village where confrontations had broken out between rival groups of the young sons of diplomats and staff, who were so fervently dedicated to amity among nations and cultures. The clashes had started with an insult of some kind, soon escalating to fists and stones and, eventually, sticks.
The pugnacious kids were recent immigrants to the States, perhaps eager to hold onto some form of nativist identity by bashing the heads of anyone who spoke strangely or looked different.
The camp I belonged to consisted of French and Latin American lads, with a Liberian and an Egyptian added to the mix, while our opponents came primarily from Scandinavia and England, vaguely replicating a divide between North and South that would be the source of so many toxic combats across the globe in the coming decades. Despite truces organized at afternoon teas by our horrified mothers, the fighting became ever more ferocious.
Only Roy, a sweet youngster from India – a friend I have evoked before, in a story I wrote some years ago – attempted to stop the mayhem. He would often step between the two bands, begging us not to hurt each other, an intervention that was met by mockery from both sides (well, something at least cruelly united us!). We turned his last name – akin to Bahana – into Banana. Roy was bananas, crazy for believing he could convince us to abandon the masculine pleasures of our antagonism.
And yet, it was Roy who finally managed precisely that, though not in the manner he or we could have foretold. One afternoon, as I returned from school, ready to rally the troops for another round of United-Nations-at-war, my distressed father told me that Roy had died that morning of a heart attack during a dental operation. Dazed with grief and guilt, I wandered into the wide area behind our house where the other boys soon began gathering. We all just stood there quietly, our heads turned toward the ground, our innocence shattered, our games of death revealed as shameful and offensive.
From that day onward, the battles ceased.
It was a way for the mourning child-warriors to honor the memory of the departed peacemaker, keeping our small comrade alive – or at least his message of brotherhood. Roy had wagered that war was a failure of the imagination, stemming from the inability to feel the afflictions of adversaries as if they were our own. This fantastical possibility, that an enemy could turn into a friend, was made real for me a few months later, when Jens, the Danish ringleader of the rival gang, moved into the house next door to ours. We had soon become inseparable, the best of pals.
I remembered Roy recently as I watched the clips commemorating the ceremonies that marked the end of the First World War. His vision of a humanity that need not be condemned to endless cycles of aggression was anticipated by a young British officer called Wilfred Owen, who died a mere week before the Armistice on November 11th 1918, one more senseless death among so many others senselessly wasted.
Though only 24 years old when he was killed, Owen wrote some extraordinary poems about his wartime experience. In one of them, “Strange Meeting,” he eerily anticipated the impending end of his own life, speaking of “the waste of war in its time.” They are verses that today – when humanity is assailed with similar stories of carnage, poisonous gas attacks and fears of apocalypse – are just as painfully relevant as they were back then.
In that poem, Owen channels the voice of a soldier who strikes up an unnerving conversation with a dead man. Together, they mourn “the undone years, the hopelessness,” until the dead man reveals he was killed the previous day by the very soldier narrating this encounter: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend… Let us sleep now.”
Owen was to sleep forever, without seeing the conclusion of the “War to End All Wars,” according to a phrase from H.G. Wells. As the interminable conflicts and victims of the next hundred years attest, nothing could have been further from the truth: we continue to slaughter each other as if the curse of Cain is ingrained in our DNA, as if we had learned nothing. Our leaders promise, as Trump did in France, to “protect the peace” while doing not nearly enough to really prevent war.
We live in a world ravaged by incessant strife and the rise of the extreme nationalism that led to the First World War that so many now swear never to repeat. It is true that new incarnations of my friend Roy intervene across the globe.
Doctors in Syria and Yemen, mediators in Colombia and Afghanistan, citizens contesting rage in Israel and Palestine, peacekeepers in the Congo and Kosovo, women – and men –denouncing war rapes, prove that there is no lack of brave members of our species ready to stand against the machines of war. What is lacking is the realization by us all that peace is a daily task, that must be carried out not by heroic, exceptional beings, but by every concerned parent and every vulnerable child.
Only when millions upon millions understand that struggle to be intimately theirs, will no more Wilfred Owens die, no more soldiers like him be sent to kill enemies whom they have never met and who could one day move in next door and become their best friends. Only then will Roy rest, effectively, in peace.