Potato Girl and Our Casualties of War

When I was a high school teacher, I tried to impart to my students that both history textbooks and media outlets have a bad habit of reducing complex human beings to simple numbers. To demonstrate the significance of events, writers and journalist sreport the number of casualties in an event, like the sixty Palestinians killed in a recent clash in Gaza, the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, and the nearly 3,000 Americans who died on 9/11.

The numbers are important, but only because each one was a life—each one had a story and relationships; each one had value and meaning. Maybe that’s why stories of singular deaths have a way of impacting us as much or more so than large scale loss of life, because we’re introduced to a person rather than a statistic.

Manga, as a form of story, must connect with us personally to succeed. Numbers are of little significance in a made-up world. For instance, I can’t recall hearing at any point how many people have died since the Colossal Titan broke through Wall Maria, but I recall many single character deaths in the series.

At this point, I should mention there are spoilers ahead. If you haven’t read through chapter 105 of Attack on Titan, then:

  1. Leave now.
  2. Read chapter 105.
  3. Come back.

Done? Terrific, because I’m about to discuss a very recent happening in the manga, one that shook me because it involved my favorite character in a series full of characters that I treasure.

In chapter 105, humanity’s (or the Eldian’s) best are escaping after their daring surprise attack. Their work has been accomplished and with relatively few casualties. It’s a success as an operation, though a number of the soldiers—Mikasa included—question Eren’s methods.

eren kills civilians and children

Eren laid waste to a town square full of people who were celebrating. Some of those individuals were complicit in war, but many were innocent. Young people were among those that died in the commotion. Eren seems troubled by it, but he knew that this would happen. He weighed the cost of the battle and decided it was worth the lives of the innocents that would be taken away.

What strikes him most, though, is the death that happens to one of his closest compatriots. As the group escapes, Gabi is able to climb aboard their airship and fire at the group. She hits Sasha, our potato girl, who previously was the only one still thinking of the danger below.

By the end of the chapter, just a few minutes later, Sasha is declared dead.

I’m not sure how shocking this moment is to the readers: I was spoiled beforehand and was ready for it to occur. And perhaps those who weren’t spoiled have already had their senses dulled by so many deaths preceding this one. But at least one person—or one character—wasn’t ready for it. Eren reacts with surprise and a little craziness at her pronounced death. He thought they got away relatively scot-free; instead, he lost one of humanity’s best soldiers, and an old friend.

No more appropriate last words for our girl

Like Eren, I wage war, too. Sometimes, I just can’t control myself—in a moment of passion or frustration or anger (or all three), I’ll say things that start a battle. Sometimes it’s loud and obvious, as when I fight with a family members. Other times, I’ll “fight back” with a few choice words or by even being a little passive aggressive in the workplace. Either way, what I fail to realize is this: my choice is bound to leave casualties in its wake. I’m not strong enough to have my way and come out bulletproof; as with Sasha, someone is bound to be taken down during my assault.

The thing is, it’s painfully obvious that a casualty will occur. In so daring a plan as Eren’s attack in the middle of a big political event, knowing that he’ll be fighting another of the Nine Titans (and perhaps more), the chances were that someone important would die—if not Sasha, then Armin or Mikasa or Levi or Jean. And when I say words whose intentions are to hurt, I know the same will, even if it doesn’t connect with me in that moment, even if I dismiss those thoughts, even if I push them away and do the deed anyway.

After these battles I’m involved in, ones that almost never had to occur in the first place, I realize this: if I was in the place I want to be, abiding in my faith and practicing what my lips say to be true (namely spending time with God and loving him), it’s likely that I would have avoided a casualty. In fact, it’s likely that I would never have engaged in battle at all.

Eren’s decision may ultimately have been right (he remarks that Sasha’s final words are representative of their people’s repression), but for me, I’m not a titan shifter nor am I a war strategist. I’m a husband, father, friend, mentor, manager, employee—and in each and every one of those roles, I want be love to those on the other side, not the enemy. And if I’m living life right, I know I’m more apt to be the person I want to be, one who cares for others, and refusing to let them become my own Sashas—casualties in a war of my own making.

featured illustration by マホ使いおぬぬ | reprinted w/permission


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