On war, Sandy and human decency

Ed Smith
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The last two weeks are weeks that should not have been.

Not for the people in New York, or Staten Island, or the Jersey Shore or dozens of other places whose names may not be familiar to us.

Nature declared war on them, and again, as with New Orleans in particular, Americans experienced what so many other people around this world experience on an almost daily basis: the ravages of war, whatever the source and whatever the cause.

Sunday (tomorrow for the majority of you) is Remembrance Day.

Listening to and seeing the stories coming out of those areas after Sandy hit them, I was reminded of something that always strikes me when remembering the horrors of two world wars in particular. That is, out of wretched misery and despair can come kindness and acts of love.

The “great cold city” that so often describes New York, and the uncaring crowds that normally brush by you unseeing and unaware, had its own beautiful moments. Perhaps you saw the young, blind woman who was so moved by the plight of those around her that she decided to do something about it.

She prepared some food, and with the help of her seeing eye dog, made her way through the rubble and debris to where some people were huddled, cold and hungry. As she was giving out the food to a small, grateful group, she saw several of her classmates (she was a music student in a local college) arriving with food of their own. They had heard what she was doing and were inspired to join her.

This young woman was telling Anderson Cooper of CNN that before long she was, in her words, Command Central for food distribution to a large number of needy people. Don’t forget this young woman and her friends were also in the middle of that terrible storm. Don’t forget, either, that she was blind.

There was the story of a man who risked his own life to rescue a taxi driver from almost certain death by drowning.

In long lineups of people desperate for gas for their vehicles, you may have heard about the man who pulled a gun on another person he thought was trying to break into the line. But there were also pictures of a crowd of men trying to push someone’s car that had broken down after running out of fuel.

OH overheard some women talking about the devastation in New York and surrounding area.

“Yes,” said one in a particularly nasty tone, “it looks good on them.”

That was said by a Newfoundland woman whom we think of as being full of the milk of human kindness.

My daughter, in the middle of it all, said there were countless acts of kindness by strangers for other strangers.

Last night I was watching for the first time that very moving and powerful movie, “Saving Private Ryan.”

The opening scenes of the American soldiers coming ashore on Normandy Beach at the D-Day invasion was more than horrific. I’ve heard that veterans watching those scenes had to get up and leave the theatre.

There were pictures of men blown in half, of men with their faces blown off and others with their heads exploding as they were hit by German bullets. One man was shown wandering up the beach holding his severed arm, in total shock.

American soldiers watching their friends and comrades die so terribly and in such numbers wanted only to destroy Germans when they got the chance. And they did, showing little mercy. Well, you might say, naturally.

Later in the movie, when the Americans are in the process of taking a town, one of them is wounded as he crosses an open area, hit by a German sniper. It’s too dangerous for the others to try and get to him and bring him into shelter. They, too, would be exposing themselves to the sniper’s deadly fire. Their own sniper is sent to try and get into position where he could kill the German.

The scene changes to where we see the wounded soldier lying in the street through the sights of the German sniper in an upstairs window. The soldier is an easy shot to be finished off. We see the sniper train the sights on the soldiers head, then swing away only to return again and again to the soldier’s body. Why doesn’t he shoot?

It’s obvious the German sniper does not want to kill the wounded man on the ground. And as he waits for a chance to shoot at an active enemy who wants to kill him, because that’s war, the American sniper shoots him in the head.

War doesn’t allow for many acts of kindness. Lots of courage and valour. Not much kindness. But there is some, just as there is in the perceived coldness of a modern city.

When I was a student in Mount Allison University, I became friends with a student named Gerhardt Brauer. His parents were second-generation Canadian. When Christmas came, I asked him where he was going for the holidays.

“Nowhere,” he said. “My parents can’t afford to get me back to B.C. I’ll stay here in the residence.”

I called my parents and asked if I could bring him home for Christmas. They didn’t hesitate. But one of our family was living with us at the time and I remember what she said to my father.

“Alex, it’s less than 20 years since the Germans killed your brother. How can you bring one of them into the house?”

I’ll never forget my father’s reply.

“Missus,” he said. “20 years is too long for hatred. It’s not too long for forgiveness. It is time to treat each other with kindness and respect.”

In war, in natural disaster, in human relationships, my father’s words still ring true.

Ed Smith is an author who lives in Springdale.  His email address is edsmith@nf.sympatico.ca.

Organizations: Mount Allison University

Geographic location: New York, Staten Island, Jersey Shore New Orleans Newfoundland Normandy Beach Springdale

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