The Other Side of the Story

Why We Need Literature – To Tell Us Both Sides

The Second Battle of Ypres

The Second Battle of Ypres, by Richard Jack. {{LAC|C-014145|2837593}}

It’s easy to hate people. How on earth can they think the way they do? What on earth would motivate them to do that? People’s minds are a mystery to us, especially if they’re our enemies. Obviously we have a good reason for whatever things we do, but they just do it because they’re pure evil, don’t they? At least, so we’d like to think till we hear their side of the story.

Good literature is one way to hear the other side of the story. It’s a way of putting yourself behind the eyes of others. And it’s far more subtle than being lectured at or forced to read a dry history of each side.

I first experienced this reading All Quiet on the Western Front. It wasn’t the sort of book I normally read – war fiction still isn’t, unless it’s highly recommended – but I found it on my mother’s bookshelf. I got at least a quarter of the way into it before realizing the characters’ point of view was that of the German soldiers in World War I, not the British as I had thought when I’d started it. (Yes, the book is famous, but I was young enough not to have heard of it before when I read it.) I was astonished “our side” was the side pouring poison gas and shelling the main characters. After all, wasn’t poison gas the nasty, sneaky biochemical weapon the Germans unveiled despite agreements not to use such barbaric things? If the British, Canadians, French, etc., all agreed it was so nasty, why on earth would they start using it themselves? (Incidentally, the Canadian have a whole mythology (somewhat based in fact, of course) surrounding the Second Battle of Ypres. The Germans released 160 tons of chlorine gas, which caused British and French defenses to crumble – but the Canadians staunchly held the line in the face of devastating casualties. This determination thus taught the world exactly what it means to be Canadian.) The answer to my question, of course, is pragmatism. You don’t win wars by being more virtuous than the other side, no matter what your propaganda is telling your people.

On top of all that, the book really shows the point of view of an ordinary German soldier – they were as sick of fighting as anyone, but because of decisions of their superiors, the war went on. One character in particular suggests all the high-ranking government officials who wanted this war should get into an arena and fight each other, without involving ordinary citizens in the misery. This shows the stupidity of taking an official policy of, say, Communism or the Taliban, and imaging every single person on that side believes in it and is fighting because of it. Sometimes the situation is far more complicated than that.

Another book that showed “the other side of the story” was Gone With the Wind. I admit, I read it because it was supposed to be a famous romance, not because it had anything to do with the Civil War. Up until then, all I knew about the Civil War was bits about the North being opposed to slavery and smuggling slaves to Canada (I am Canadian, after all). I had never considered the Southern point of view. Now, this book is controversial in how it portrays the “happy slave” stereotype, and in its somewhat sympathetic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. That’s not what I mean when I talk about the other side of the story (though it does reveal patterns of thought that justified these things) – what I mean is that it showed me that in war, the North was just as brutal as the South, and their victory set forth a whole string of problems for survival for people such as Scarlett O’Hare. At the very least, it is one example of how those in the South viewed the Civil War. But more importantly, it points out that no matter how “right” one side is (ie: not supporting slavery), doesn’t mean every action of that side will be sunshine and roses.

One last example – Hiroshima. This is a book by a journalist who interviewed several people after the nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and followed up these interviews forty years later. Of course I’d learned about the nuclear bombs from our point of view, about how they were necessary to keep the war from being prolonged, etc., etc. But that doesn’t negate the fact that this action had a huge effect on ordinary citizens going about their lives. Reading about the confusion, the resulting chaos, the lasting radiation sickness and so on, you can never forget that the bomb affected individuals – it won’t let you hide behind the “a million is just a statistic” trope.

This means that while books are a very important tool for understanding each other, they are also a dangerous tool. After all, fiction can twist a point of view until almost any belief can seem right. I think there’s a reason I’ve never read a book from Hitler’s point of view, and I don’t think writing such a book would be at all productive (unless the message was to point out how wrong he was). But I think that advantage here is that books from the other side of the story reflect back to us ourselves – the way we appear in other people’s eyes. They make us unable to avoid seeing ourselves as just as unjust, nasty and brutal as we think the other side is. This is necessary because only if we know our faults can we change them. We need to know we’re just as capable of evil, if pressed. If we wrap ourselves in a cloak of self-righteousness and justification , we’ll be forever wondering why they hate us.

Literature: a powerful force to be wielded responsibly.

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2 Comments

Filed under All Quiet on the Western Front, Gone With the Wind, Hiroshima

2 responses to “The Other Side of the Story

  1. Alexia

    You know, a neighbor of my grandmother was a war prisonner in Germany during WWII. When I was a kid, I imagined that it was awful, but for him it wasn’t actually so bad. I mean, sure he had been captured, but he was sent in a farm or something and the people there were nice to him. I mean, maybe it’s because he spoke german, I don’t know. But I do know that when the war was over he kept in touch with them, and their children came to his funeral a few years ago. It was really hard for me, as a kid, to get used to that idea because, well, everyone else’s point of view was pretty much that the Germans were evil. But there’s two sides in every story. I’ve never read one, but I know there’s a few ex-Nazis books out there. And I’ve seen a lot of documentaries that taught me that the reason Hitler was given so much power is because he faced to a deprived, poor and hopeless nation. Germany in the 1930’s had reached rock bottom due to the Treaty of Versailles. Communism and nationalism feed on people’s despair. And you know, back to when I was a kid, a friend of my family told me that you had to admire how Hitler put his country back on its feet and even managed to make it more powerful than it was before WWI. It was really hard at the time for me to understand her point of view. I mean, admiring Hitler for something ? No, thank you. But obviously now I see what she meant. Admire is still too strong a word, but yeah, it is impressive.

    About “Gone with the Wind”… I’m not exactly familiar with the Civil War, but I’ve always heard that not supporting slavery was just an excuse for the North, a way to control the South that was more independant and still appear to have a noble goal. But I’m not an expert so I don’t know.

    And for Hiroshima… On the other hand, Japanese soldiers ate their Chinese prisonners because they were considered less than human. Nobody is innocent in times of war, it’d be foolish to think it’s as simple as good versus bad… I’m personnally painfully aware of what the Vichy regime did to Jews and homosexuals, not to mention gypsies and handicapped people (they were sent to those camps too, but people mostly only mention the Jews). It would be ridiculous to try and pretend it didn’t happen, and yet people are still doing it. After all, we were considered winners, weren’t we ? Some win, indeed…

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  2. Yes, what you’ve said about World War II I’ve heard too – there were a lot of reasons Germans followed Hitler, and the Nazis took advantage of how the people were looking for hope. It is surprising Hitler got as far as he did too, after the way Germany was after WWI. About the Civil War… I’ve never heard that theory, but I don’t know many details about US history. I know there were certainly many individuals in the North who opposed slavery vehemently, but whether the war happened more because of ideological or political reasons, I don’t know. And yes, Japanese prisoner of war camps were horrible – much worse than the Germans (I’ve heard). If I remember right, the Germans actually treated their prisoners of war pretty well, and the bad conditions were in the concentration camps (for Jews and the other groups you mentioned).

    Anyway, the full story of anything in history is usually far more complicated than you think.

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