The Emotions of War: How to Convey War Memory Effectively

The 10th International Conference of Museums for Peace

Title: The Emotions of War: How to Convey War Memory Effectively:

Author: Lucy Colback, Freelance writer

Abstract: How to convey war memory effectively? I have spent more than three years traveling the globe to meet with war survivors, both veteran soldiers and those who were children during the conflict, gathering their stories for a book. The paper will present some of the hundreds of hours of stories I have recorded from countries such as Russia, Japan, Germany and the UK.

For the greatest impact, the stories are curated by emotional theme. The process of gathering and collating the stories has taught me that, for the broader audience, first person accounts that put feeling at the focus are more moving and affecting than the presentation of bald facts and figures of battle. Such accounts, through conveying the trauma and emotional toll of war, are thus more effective in helping the modern observer understand the cost of conflict. Battle stories which focus on the pain or joy of participants show the human side of war and, in doing so, unite combatants in their humanity.

In conveying the personal side of war experience there is more potential to engender empathy with those who suffer, irrespective of allegiance. This is critical if we are to educate for peace.

How to Convey War Memory Effectively:

Harnessing Memories of World War Two in Service of Peace

In the summer of 2014 I visited Yunnan in southwestern China to take a break from the heat of Beijing, where I was attending a summer school. This visit, undertaken on a whim, changed the course of my career.

While there, I spent my afternoons on a breezy balcony, chatting with my host about the region's history and its strategic importance in World War Two. I had read an undergraduate degree in Chinese at university in Britain, but I was surprised when he talked about the allegiance between the US and China during the war. It was a section of the history I had largely forgotten, if it had even been taught. In the seven decades since the war had ended, the two countries had become ideologically estranged, and China's rise was spurring increasingly antagonistic rhetoric from both sides.

At the same time, China's Communist Party suddenly seemed to be refocussing on its wartime grievances with Japan, leading to street protests and violence against Japanese property in China—as well as some Chinese unfortunate enough to be caught driving Japanese cars in the vicinity of anti-Japanese protests.

As these clashes spilled over into ever-wider anger among people born well after the war, I wondered how the people who had actually experienced it felt about the unfolding events. Would old Chinese who had lived through the awful years of Japanese occupation view the clashes with satisfaction, any justifiable thirst for revenge about to be slaked? On the other hand, how would they view the rising antipathy towards the US, a former ally in evicting the hated enemy?

The more I thought about it, the more I began to believe that the generation which had lived through World War Two would probably be more similar in their views across borders than they may be across generations at home. That the war which had cost them their youth might have bound them together in shared horror and therefore united them in some profound way in shared values, even across former enemy lines—and whether or not they had reconciled with the past.

The questions nagged at me until finally I resolved to ask them of as many old people as I could reach. As a result, six years on from when my curiosity was first piqued, I have spent half of that time circumnavigating the globe to meet survivors of the World War Two years from the US, Russia, Japan, China, Germany and Britain, to name just the largest countries. I have spoken with those who experienced the war as children, soldiers, wives and prisoners of war.

Too often, war histories are presented through details of engagements and statistics to which we cannot relate. Even major atrocities when illustrated as numbers of casualties do not touch us: we suffer from an inability to comprehend the enormity of such horrors, or are overwhelmed by compassion fatigue. We need to hear individual stories and be touched by others' emotions in order to relate to their joy or their suffering. Only in this way can we foster a deeper empathy in those who have not experienced war for those who have, regardless of allegiance. Only through encountering individual histories, side by side, can we understand the true horror of war and realise that in war, everybody suffers.

My travels have not all been an exercise in "Peace Studies"—nor is it easy to generalise across survivors' tales—but I can say that in nearly one hundred meetings, only one man has told me he would still shoot his former enemy, "starting at his feet", if they showed up in his living room.

On Fear

Besides that particular veteran, who did not directly experience combat, it was the children of the war that I met who seemed to have had most trouble processing their experiences with the enemy. Gustaaf van Beers, a young boy when the Japanese arrived at his home in the Dutch East Indies, told me of the terrible nightmares he had had years after the war in which he relieved the "razzias" of Japanese soldiers rounding up children to take to internment camps. More than 70 years on, he still felt uneasy when he saw all the Japanese cars in his Canadian neighbourhood.

This did not stop him from returning to the region of his youth. His career as an economist was spent in the service of development in Asia. He was not of a religious bent, but his wish for future generations, he said, is that humans should find a new philosophy which could take us back towards nature and values, and away from our relentless pursuit of money.

Chris Swann, too, retained residual antipathy towards the Japanese as emblematic of his wartime distress. He recalled the "trauma" of being marched to an internment camp in 1943 with his parents as a deliberate "humiliation of the Westerners".

Such an experience, however, was not reserved for enemies of the Japanese in their occupied lands. Yoshio Nakamura, a second generation Japanese American, or Nisei, recalled in similar fashion his teenaged journey to be interned in a Californian camp, part of the US military's policy to protect against the possibility that these US citizens might be spies. "And when we got to the train station, we were getting off, and—my gosh! All the soldiers lined up along the street, and there were bystanders wondering what's going on, like it was a parade or something. And here are these families, carrying what they had, and walking down from the train station to the racetrack. It was a fair distance, and you could hear children asking why all these men over here have guns and where are we going, and all these kinds of things. It still rings in my head".

On Compassion

Even traumatised children, however, could appreciate the humanity of the enemy. Ernest Hilton, incarcerated in Bergen Belsen concentration camp between the ages of nine and 14, told me he felt no hatred for the people that had imprisoned him. He talked instead about the help that civilians had extended to his family. The worst part of his multi-year ordeal, he said, was being shipped out of Belsen in early April on a train which filled up with the dead as typhus took hold of them. Abandoned after their train guards fled, he and his sister foraged for food from a nearby German farm where they were given potato peels by the farmer's wife. Later still, after being liberated by Russian troops, he and his family walked through the devastated cities of Germany. "On our way home in army trucks, we were in Leipzig. Leipzig was the most bombed out city and…I was very touched by the damage I walked through…We walked through streets, on either side were rubble heaps. There were no buildings, it was all kaput. I was very impressed, because if it all had been nice and neat and neighbourly, I probably would have reacted very differently. But to see Germany destroyed was satisfying in a way, for me, that they had got their come-uppance…It’s unbelievable to see what happened there."

Any satisfaction suggested by his comments was dispelled by his later observations. The journey home brought him into contact with Germans who were generous and kind, despite their own devastation. Another German woman took him to her home to give him shoes that had belonged to her son. Once he had safely returned and recovered from his terror of being separated from his family, he told me, "I think from that moment on my anti-German sentiment dropped a lot. Because she must have had a bad war too. There is no German alive that didn’t suffer. I came to that conclusion very quickly".

Jean-Pierre Offergeld, a boy caught in the combat zone as the Germans made a desperate effort to recapture his village in Belgium in the winter of 1944, also recalled fleeting moments of shared emotion in the thick of war. As his family fled their home under bombardment, a German sentry took pity on them. The soldier ushered them into his guard post to take shelter. "And the German and my father cried. They fell into each other’s arms and the German cried, “The madness! The madness of war!"".

Nearly 75 years after the war and with the heat of combat now dissipated, one veteran's words showed how difficult he had found it to kill, notwithstanding the circumstances. "It's don't know who you're shooting. But it's someone's father, somebody's son. But you haven't got to think about that really. You just think "Good, he's gone"".

On Redemption

Many of the children's stories were traumatic, but of all them the most difficult to hear was that of Kinjo Shigeaki. Shigeaki lived on a small island off Okinawa and, like all other children of his generation in Japan, was indoctrinated in self-sacrifice for the war effort in the name of the emperor-god. He was too young to enlist but he told me how all citizens were "at war" and that "everyone had to fight". The kichikubeiei—British and American demons—would mutilate and murder any Japanese that they caught.

His family belonged to a village which was ordered by their leader to commit suicide. He and his older brother helped to kill his own mother and younger siblings before resolving to cost the Americans a few bullets to end the boys' lives. Instead, the youths were treated kindly by the Americans soldiers who took their surrender and fed them, and they watched in shock as this "vicious" enemy tended to wounded Japanese. Shigeaki later became a Christian and worked as a pastor to spread peace. He told me, "During the war, China was the enemy, so Japan and China were at war and were enemies. But after knowing Christ there is no Japan or China. Although there are countries, all Chinese, Japanese and Americans are precious human beings."

On Reconciliation

This way of thinking was more common than I had envisaged, even when I first imagined that the war generation might have similar views on conflict. Si Ruiqi, a young girl in Kunming during the Japanese occupation and who saw first-hand the impact of aerial bombardments on her city, argues forcefully against those who hate the Japanese today, "I don’t agree with hating the ordinary Japanese. Sure, hate the people who started the war, but the ordinary men and women are our friends...Their husbands, fathers and mothers also died".

Jerry Yellin's experiences were more personal still and yet he also became minded more for reconciliation than recrimination. A former US fighter pilot stationed on Iwo Jima once America had established an airstrip there, he told me of the terrible atrocities he had seen committed against US marines on that island. He was not kindly disposed towards the enemy for decades afterwards, and suffered from PTSD. Then, in the 1980s, he was forced to confront his feeling first when he visited Japan and found that he liked the people, and then again when his son became engaged to the daughter of a former Imperial Japanese Army airman. His subsequent embrace of this Japanese family made him question anew the loss of so many of his young comrades as they fought a nation with whom his country so rapidly made amends.

He spoke to me from his hospice bed in Florida in terms very similar to those of Kinjo Shigeaki. "My journey of knowledge leads me to believe that we’re not Catholics, or Jews or white or black - we’re all human beings", telling me that the most important thing in life was "to make contact, daily, to connect with people." He died three days later, having spoken for peace to the end.

Fergus Anckorn experienced extreme brutality, labouring as a POW on the infamous Death Railway. Injured and left for dead in a hospital massacre after the fall of Singapore, he was incarcerated in miserable conditions in Changyi prison and then transported to Thailand where he was subjected to brutal beatings. He told me that when the war was over it was time to move on—despite also suffering from post traumatic stress. Decades after the war, he met one of his former Death Railway torturers at a Japanese embassy reception, telling me he greeted him simply with "What are you up to these days?"


As geopolitical winds change, it can be inconvenient for governments to dwell on former allegiances. To counter those official narratives of war which are bent to nationalistic goals, it is critical to preserve the voices of the men and women who experienced conflict. More often than not they speak not of revenge but of the importance of mutual understanding, and the necessity to avoid war at all costs.

Education can also fail to present a holistic view. Most young people know only what they are taught, and in many countries it is expedient to focus on national heroism in the service of national cohesion, but at the expense of international understanding. Veterans often fill in the gaps, talking about their experiences to wide audiences in their retirement years. From hibakusha, many of whom are activists in support of nuclear disarmament, to individual servicemen worldwide who give talks at schools, they seek to expose the realities of war beyond tales of heroism and glory.

The knowledge gap is exacerbated by political agendas, but it exists even among former allies that are not estranged by divergent ideology. World War Two servicemen from the UK told me they receive a more rapturous reception from continental Europeans, who turn out by the thousands to welcome them at annual commemorations at Arnhem and Normandy. Their compatriots, by contrast, seem less informed. It may simply be that those whose lands had been occupied have a deeper understanding of the conflict than those whose homes were never invaded. Despite the prevailing geopolitics, southwestern Chinese retain lasting goodwill towards the US pilots who protected their skies and delivered vital supplies to keep China's resistance to occupation alive.

In the face of a divisive overlay of both domestic and international politics, it is significant that those who experienced the war can still harbour mutual appreciation, even across modern day "enemy lines". The Russian veterans I met—at Holocaust survivor Ernest Hilton's insistence—remember their British Allies delivering tins of spam via deadly Artic convoys to aid Russian efforts against Hitler. From their number, a small party has been going to the UK on a yearly basis to commemorate VE Day with a sunset ceremony on the HMS Belfast on London's River Thames. Both the veterans and the citizens they meet appreciate this contact at the personal level.

As the global situation has become even more tense in recent years, such "person to person" diplomacy, as well as honouring the sacrifices of our veterans and preserving their individual tales of suffering, loss and reconciliation, is critical to fostering mutual compassion. Only through such endeavours can we engender more widespread resistance to war.