Award-winning Iranian writer Ahmad Akbarpour uses the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988, claiming 1.5 million lives) as the backdrop for this indelible, meaningful story about a young boy who lost his mother – and his leg. “The story is set in Iran,” Akbarpour explains in his author’s note, “But it could be the story of any child in any country where a war is fought for economic, strategic, ideological or other reasons, and in the end leaves everyone far worse off than they were before, especially the innocent victims.”
Alas, the world never seems to have a shortage of deadly conflicts … and no one suffers more than children: if they manage to survive death and destruction, they will have to live the longest with the tragic consequences. Children in war zones are forced to grow up far too early, and need ways to process their trauma. Those who are blessed to be war-free throughout their youth, would do well with exposure to age-appropriate materials that bring awareness of alternatives to intolerance, violence, hate, and body counts.
In the midst of playing alone in his room, a young boy is interrupted by his father, and reminded to remove his prosthetic leg when at home because “[i]t makes a lot of noise and you might damage it.” He does so reluctantly and resumes his game, determined that he “‘… will avenge [his mother’s] death!'” The boy is the titular ‘Commander’ – fighting invisible foes and their land mines, grenades, and injured screams. His only break is a call to the dinner table, where his father, grandmother, aunts, and uncles have gathered to celebrate his father’s upcoming remarriage.
While the Commander replays his terrifying memories – as if repetition might somehow dull the tragedy – life for the rest of his family moves on. Now faced with a major change – a “new mother”! – the Commander works harder than ever seeking justice for his own beloved late mother. Yet when his imagination places him face-to-face with another motherless soldier boy missing his leg, the Commander doesn’t shoot, but instead allows his imaginary enemy to borrow his prosthetic leg “only for tonight.” He calls a cease-fire, initially ashamed, but then his mother commends him from her picture on the wall: “‘Congratulations, Commander. I’m proud of you.'”
Akbarpour’s illustrator, fellow Iranian Morteza Zahedi, channels the stick figures common in toddlers’ drawings, adding hauntingly detailed expressions especially on the face of the young boy. The result is chillingly effective, the boy’s unfiltered insight a sobering reminder of how children clearly comprehend the world around them. Thanks to the great wisdom of the world’s youngest citizens, the promise of peace looms.
Published: 2005, 2010 (United States)