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pages 149-157 from The Night of the New Moon
by Laurens van der Post
© Laurens van der Post 1970
(Published in the U.S. in 1971 as The Prisoner and the Bomb)

The question may well be asked why this story was not told twenty-five years ago. There are two main answers to the question. One is that when I came out of prison in August 1945, I went straight back to active service without even a day's leave. For close on the eighteen months that followed I was involved in another kind of war, both military and political, in Indonesia. Militarily, it was a desultory and minor war compared with the war which had preceded it but for me, at any rate, it was often as dangerous and always more unpleasant because, among other things, unlike its predecessor, its objectives were confused and dubious.

          When the British forces could at last be withdrawn from Indonesia towards the end of 1946, I was ordered to stay on as Military Attaché to the British minister in Java. I could not return to Britain until a year later, like some kind of military Rip Van Winkle, so quickly and completely forgotten was the decade of war, imprisonment and more war to which I belonged. I immediately found myself confronted on my return with another special challenge as personal and, to me, even more important and urgent than the one which had made me go straight from prison to active service. This challenge constituted the second reason that made it impossible for me to give my mind to the theme of this story.

          It all arose out of the fact that the most disturbing feature for me of all the years I had spent in Indonesia which I had come to love with almost as great an intensity as my native Africa, was the discovery that a people so intelligent, admirable and efficient as the Dutch, unbelievable as it may now seem, had managed to live in Indonesia for some 350 years without apparently ever suspecting even that in the secret hearts of the millions of people they governed, well after a Roman fashion, the greatest desire from the beginning had been to be quit of them and their rule. This aspect of life in Indonesia, this kind of insensitivity of Empire, seemed to me the outstanding example of the cause of all the great and growing European trouble in the Far East.

          But far more important and immediate to me, was the realization it spread within my own heart that in my native continent of Africa, as I looked back to it under the microscope of the intensest nostalgia which only imprisonment and living daily with a threat of death can produce, this same form of unawareness among its European rulers was even greater than it had ever been in Indonesia. I had, ever since I can remember, been opposed to colour prejudice in my own country. I had written, when barely more than a boy, one of the first books on the evil of colour and race prejudices and so was quick to feel as a result of my time in Java that, unless something were done to make the European in British Africa and particularly in my own native South Africa aware of the evils and perils implicit in a similar lack of imagination and insensitivity to the inner needs and desires of the peoples of Africa, even greater disasters faced them there than those they were already experiencing in Asia.

          Accordingly, the moment I was free of the special sense of obligation which had made me serve on in Java I felt compelled to do what I could in my own small way to set this right. In spite of tempting offers of promotion and a career of interest in an army for which I had acquired a profound admiration and affection, I resigned from it. I devoted years that followed to work in Africa, trying to help prevent a repetition of the amply discredited patterns of history which dominate so large a part of the great continent today.

          All this meant that I had neither the freedom of imagination nor the time to give to the aspect of my experience with which this story is concerned. But I doubt whether, even if I had had the time and the mind, I would have written the story as I have written it here much before today. I believe I would have decided against it because, even told as I believe I would have told it at the moment of Japan's surrender, without resentment against the Japanese, I would have been afraid that it would have been used just as more atrocity evidence for the punishment which was being inflicted on our enemies for the war and the manner in which they had conducted it.

          I myself was utterly opposed to any form of war trials. I refused to collaborate with the officers of the various war crimes tribunals that were set up in the Far East. There seemed to me something unreal, if not utterly false, about a process that made men, like war crimes investigators from Europe, who had not suffered under the Japanese more bitter and vengeful about our suffering than we were ourselves. There seemed in this the seeds of the great, classic and fateful evasions in the human spirit which, I believe, both in the collective and in the individual sense, have been responsible for most of the major tragedies of recorded life and time and are increasingly so in the tragedies that confront us in the world today. I refer to the tendencies in men to blame their own misfortunes and those of their cultures on others; to exercise judgement they need for themselves in the lives of others; to search for a villain to explain everything that goes wrong on their private and collective courses. It was easy to be high-minded always in the life of others and afterwards to feel one had been high-minded in one's own. The whole of history, it seemed to me, had been bedevilled by this unconscious and instant mechanism of duplicity in the mind of man. As I saw it, we had no moral surplus in our own lives for the lives of others. We needed all our moral energies for ourselves and our own societies.

          I had been drawn steadily over the years to a conclusion which has become almost a major article of faith. Men, I believed, were their own greatest villain -- they themselves the flies in their own ointment. Villains undoubtedly do exist in the wide world without. But they do so in a mysterious and significant state of inter-dependence with the profoundest failures and inadequacies in ourselves and our attitudes to life. It is almost as if the villain without is a Siamese twin of all that is wrong within ourselves. The only sure way to rid life of villains, I believed, after years of thinking about it in prison, was to rid ourselves first of the villain within our own individual and native collective contexts. If we could take care of the measure of the failures in ourselves, I was certain that the world on the whole would ultimately take better care of itself.

          I felt strongly that if war had had any justification at all it was only in the sense that at its end, it should leave victors and vanquished free for a moment from the destructive aspects of their past. Modern war appeared to me a grim autonomous state of life carrying within itself, its own harsh system of reward and punishment for those who waged it. It was almost as if war today were a bitter form of penance for all our inadequate yesterdays. Once this terrible penance had been paid, my own experience suggested, it re-established men in a brief state of innocence which, if seized with imagination, could enable us to build better than before. To go looking for particular persons and societies to blame and punish at the end of war seemed to me to throw men back into the negative aspects of the past from which they had been trying to escape, and to deprive them of the opportunity they had so bitterly earned to begin afresh.

          In any case, I did not believe then as I do not believe now, that you could punish whole peoples or even solitary individuals into being better persons. This seemed a renegade, discredited and utterly archaic concept. It has been tried throughout history. Far from being an instrument of redemption, which is punishment's only moral justification, it is an increasingly self-defeating weapon in the hands of dangerously one-sided men. I know only that I came out of prison longing passionately -- and I am certain my longing was shared by all the thousands of men who had been with me -- that the past would be recognized as the past and instantly buried before it spread another form of putrefaction in the spirit of our time. I thought that the only hope for the future lay in an all-embracing attitude of forgiveness of the peoples who had been our enemies. Forgiveness, my prison experience had taught me, was not mere religious sentimentality; it was as fundamental a law of the human spirit as the law of gravity. If one broke the law of gravity one broke one's neck; if one broke this law of forgiveness one inflicted a mortal wound on one's spirit and became once again a member of the chain-gang of mere cause and effect from which life has labored so long and painfully to escape.

          The conduct of thousands of men in war and in prison with me confirmed with an eloquence which is one of my most precious memories of war, that the spirit of man is naturally a forgiving spirit. I was convinced that if the cancellation of the negative past which is forgiveness could take its place, it would automatically be followed by the recognition that men could no longer change the pattern of life for the better by changing their frontiers, their systems and their laws of compulsion of judgement and justice, but only by changing themselves.

          I had learnt to fear the Pharisee more than the sinner; judgement and justice almost more than human error. I know judgement and justice had brought us far but that far was not far enough. Only the exercise of the law of forgiveness, the declaration forever of an unconditional amnesty for all in the warring spirit of men, could carry us on beyond. This alone could be the beginning of real change in life and it could only be by example of patiently living out the change in ourselves that we could hope to change for the better the societies to which we belong. It had become axiomatic for me that we could take nobody and no people further than we had taken ourselves. To the extent to which I felt my own war experience could contribute to such a shift in the imagination of man, I responded as a matter of inner urgency -- despite all the other preoccupations that beset me -- and very soon after my return from Java, put it as well as I could into a story called "A Bar of Shadow" -- a theme I later orchestrated in a longer book called The Seed and the Sower. However, as far as the day-to-day facts of what we had endured under the Japanese were concerned, I preferred to remain silent, because I was convinced that the use to which they inevitably would be put in this literal and two-dimensionally minded age of ours, would work against the whole truth of war and the meaning and consequences it should have for the world.

          I would have remained silent even now if it had not been for the fact that I see another kind of one-sidedness being introduced into the thinking of our time, as dangerous as the other one-sidedness that I feared in ourselves at the end of the war. This one-sidedness results from the fact that more and more people see the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki out of context. They tend to see it increasingly as an act of history in which we alone were the villains. I have been amazed to observe how in some extraordinary kind of way my own Japanese friends do not seem to feel that they had done anything themselves to provoke us into inflicting Hiroshima and Nagasaki on them and how strangely uncurious they are about their own part in the war. I felt that it was extremely important for them as well as for us to maintain a view of this cataclysmic event as steady as it was whole. I had a feeling almost as if I had been placed in a special position by life to contribute in a small way to what should be the final wholeness of the concept of the history of that moment. Perhaps no particular event in history is fully accounted for until it has been seen also from the point of view of the persons who had a special relationship with it. It is precisely because I am convinced that the thousands of people who were in prison with me, and I in particular, had a special relationship with this terrible moment in time that I felt I had a duty to put my share of it on record.

          This sense of duty has become more acute as the time left for me to do so has become less. There was too the obvious danger that something essential of the experience would be forgotten. The statistics of what happened to us were perhaps not imperilled. But what seemed to me to be increasingly in danger were the great imponderables of those years that conceived our experience, gave it its own unique life and clothed the bare bones of facts and statistics of our existence with something precious and irrevocable of our perishable flesh and blood.

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