Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words - the Real Face of War

When I created the character of little Wardah, the daughter of a Syrian rebel, who comes to stay in the sanctuary of the Bard's Bed & Breakfast, I tried to portray her accurately. As a child caught up in the horrors of war, facing the sudden loss of childhood, never knowing if and when she would ever be reunited with her family, I had an image in mind.

Wardah first appears in Let Slip the Dogs of War. A little waif, with sadness permeating every cell of her body, she waits in the hallway with her taciturn escort. The moment Bea sets eyes on her, she becomes connected to this little girl in a way that carries through A Plague O' Both Your Houses. Bea would lay down her life for this child. She would do whatever it takes to protect her, to nurture her, to restore whatever is left of childhood for this victim of Syria's brutal regime.

We forget sometimes that the United States can be a force for good. It's so easy to surrender to the notion that the only thing Americans care about is the pocketbook. The assumption is that the CIA is made up of lawless rogues who have no interest in human rights or human decency. As an agency, it's often demonized by people who never really have to get their hands dirty, safe in their arm chairs at home. Sometimes in life, one must choose between the lesser of evils because evil is all that's available. All the more reason to have the best people doing the job, people who gather all the available information, who thoroughly analyze it, who don't take shortcuts because they've got to be somewhere else in an hour.

As a character, Bea is someone who understands that collateral damage can be the result of war, but she also understands that it's important to stand up for your beliefs and back them with action. Her conscience is clear, even as she knows her husband, Ben, a former CIA officer, still has a job to do. Alas, Bea isn't always aware of the difficult choices that Ben must make, or that he struggles to remain a decent man in a world of darkness, any more than she understands she is Ben's moral bedrock.

Passion drives Bea as a character -- even when she doesn't always make the right decisions, her intentions are spot-on. People matter to her. Life matters to her. Love matters to her. And that love is what she offers the little Syrian girl who arrives on her doorstep for safekeeping. Wardah comes for sanctuary and Bea is determined to provide it. How do you give a little girl a new cover? A rose by any other name would be as sweet, and "Rosie's" childhood begins anew in pastoral Vermont, even as the enemy comes to Lake Champlain to continue the battle.

In today's New York Times, Muzaffar Salman's photograph of an Aleppo school girl appeared on the front page.

Muzaffar Salman's Photo of an Aleppo Girl After Her Home Was Destroyed

As I gazed down on this little face over my morning coffee, I was struck by how closely she resembled the image in my mind of  the fictional Wardah. It wasn't the small pink jacket she clutches in her hand, any more than it was the beaded necklace draped over her tender shoulders. It was that stricken look upon her face, with those haunted eyes. It was that young hand that couldn't fathom the horror that had entered her life. The adult with her grips her by the wrist to lead her away, but the child's eyes are focused in the distance. What is she looking at? The caption tells us this young child went off to school, only to find her home had been destroyed in strikes that reportedly killed more than thirty people. This little girl, a real-life peer of the fictional Wardah, lost the people who made up her world. Her life is forever changed by what happened. If she survives these days of war, if she reaches adulthood, she might learn again to laugh, to share, to love, but I guarantee you that somewhere in her soul, the look of devastation that is imprinted on her face in this photo will remain. She will never forget the people she lost in these strikes. They are forever gone.

Of all the mysteries I have written, only the Bard's Bed & Breakfast seems to generate the most controversy. It's the series people offer the most praise and criticism for, and I think it has to do with the difficult subject of international relations. The Gabby Grimm Fairy Tale Mysteries don't generate controversy this way.  Maybe it's because Deputy Gabby Grimm is an easy character to love. She's a good girl who is willing to get her hands dirty to do what's right. She's on home turf in Vermont and she's going to take a stand and protect the people of Latimer Falls. But Bea and Ben Jones have a much harder road to travel. In their world, the bad guys are really bad and the good guys try to intercept them before they invade America. That puts Ben in the position of having to act to prevent another 9/11 on foreign soil, often to engage the enemy on his own turf. Even as he travels to Syria to help Wardah's family, he risks his life to do right. And even as he is gone, Bea understands that he might not come home. But she also knows, as she cares for her little Syrian ward, that she is willing to support Ben's efforts. She wishes it didn't have to be this way, but someone has to do the job. All the more reason to challenge Ben, to keep him focused on what matters and why it matters.

When you read the Bard's Bed & Breakfast mysteries, it's okay to chuckle at some of the bickering that goes on between husband and wife. Lord knows love is complicated, and no more so than when a woman loves a spy whose life depends on secrecy and covert missions. But don't forget the little Rosies of the world, the Wardahs whose lives are devastated by war in their homelands. They are the victims whose faces tell the real story of war, and they cry out for real help for their plight.

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