An introduction to a periodic series of journal posts reflecting on living with war, both past and present.
Recently I had a conversation with my college-age grandson about the war in Ukraine. I expressed consternation at the devastation and loss of life along with a fear of escalation in an era of nuclear weapons. He shared that he saw the events as a clarifying juxtaposition of good versus evil, of democracy versus autocracy. His perspective made me think more deeply.
We discussed then – and I’ve thought more since – how our perspectives have been influenced by our life experiences. Part of the millennial generation, he has felt removed from the regional fighting taking place in other countries during his lifetime.
War has shaped me in different ways. I was born near the end of World War II and escaped as a two-year-old from the increasingly war-torn city of Chengdu in West China with my parents, older sister, and infant brother. Throughout my parents’ fourteen years in China, they experienced various levels of military activity, from battles between warlords to Communist soldiers making their Long March through West China to the inexorable advance of the invading Japanese beginning in 1937 and subsequent air raids. These all became part of my father’s repertoire of stories.
My parents’ motivation in going to China had been humanitarian, to help educate doctors and bring western medicine to the country. But throughout their time in Chengdu the learning flowed both ways. I venture to say they gained as much knowledge as they contributed. They developed a deep respect for the Chinese people and their rich culture and made life-long friendships. My open-minded father even incorporated Buddhist thought into his belief system and aspects of eastern medicine into his medical practice long before it became popular.
Although some of my parents’ missionary friends left Chengdu in the early years of World War II, my parents stayed on. Despite the wartime inflation, the Japanese air raids, the strain on university resources when five colleges and medical schools from the embattled eastern provinces relocated faculty and students to Chengdu, they stayed. Until late 1945 when it became too much and they had to consider their three children, my brother just a baby. Our return home became a six-month journey as we joined the throng of wartime refugees fleeing Southeast Asia.
These experiences led to my parents becoming lifelong peace activists and their feeling of being global citizens. They worried about their Chinese friends in the years after we returned to the US as the last throes of China’s civil war engulfed the country. Fifteen years later they feared again for their friends’ well-being as the Cultural Revolution flared and Red Guards ransacked some of China’s most iconic cultural treasures and forced academics to parade in dunce caps.
Although I too was aware of these events, it was the Cold War that became the constant backdrop throughout my childhood and beyond. I glimpsed a more optimistic future, however, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the various negotiations around nuclear weapons, the dissolution of the USSR, and the reopening of China in the 1980s. These to me signaled a more stable world order—and, more personally, an ability to travel in the country where I was born. That more optimistic future, I fear, is now receding.
I’ve thought often of my parents in recent months with war again a looming specter and thousands upon thousands of families on the move as refugees. I plan a series of occasional posts reflecting on war, drawing on my parents’ experiences and the impact of war on civilians. Stay tuned.