War Stories

My grandfather, after he retired from the Army Corps of Engineers, taught military history for a number of years, and by the time I was born he’d amassed a small library’s worth of books and then some. I was twelve when I pulled Bill Mauldin’s Up Front off the shelf. It’s a tidy volume bound in brown cloth, filled with single-panel cartoons depicting infantry life in World War II alongside Mauldin’s prose notes on the subject. It’s a funny, dark, straightforward book that’s frequently described as “grim” in reviews and commentary. I’ve loved it since I first read it through.

There are lots of topics that are off-limits when you’re writing for kids. Books, movies, music, whatever it is, there are things we’re comfortable with kids exploring and things we’re not. Sex, torture, gleeful violence, sexual violence–they’re all out-of-bounds up to the age of sixteen or so. Kids should learn about the world, we say, and about other people, but not too much. Not too fast. We introduce death slowly, and we argue when we do about whether we did the right thing.

Which is why I’m fascinated by our enthusiasm for kids playing at war.

Girls dress up as Katniss Everdeen for Halloween and parents are thrilled that they have such an empowering costume available to them. Since 1977, thousands of children have played Rebels and Empire in their backyards with cheerful abandon. Even that simplest of card games, the one you learn to while away a long wait at the doctor’s office, is called War.

We’re (thank goodness) no longer happy to have boys with BB guns running around the neighborhood shooting at each other with only a metal-bucket helmet for protection. Elementary school playgrounds ban sword fights with sticks. But once we take away the genuine danger of child-size weapons, we’ve decided that other parts of war–the maneuvering, the rhetoric, and yes, the fighting and the dying, if it’s clean enough or heroic enough–are all fair game.

What do we see in war that makes us say, yes, this is child’s play? It certainly isn’t the horrific bombings, casual murder, frequent boredom, civilian deaths, or exhausting uncertainty. It isn’t body parts hanging from shattered tree limbs or children, real children, reenacting the way their best friend died; we don’t give kids All Quiet on the Western Front or Syrian Dust and say, here, blueprints for your next game. But once you’ve taken the hard parts out, what exactly is it that we think is left?

You draw a card, and I draw a card. One of them is numerically superior to the other, and so the losing card is ceded and absorbed into the winner’s forces. We draw, and we come up even, and thus results not just a skirmish, but a battle, wherein we bet the fate of three cards on the power of one. I lose, and you absorb my losses into your deck.

It’s a pleasant game. Polite. Unambiguous. In each round there are winners and losers, and sometimes we are one and sometimes we are the other. Losses may well be won back again. The forces are interchangeable, and we almost never play to the drawn-out end. It’s all very civilized.

We play at war, kids and adults who have never in our lives seen a battlefield except when the cannons are plugged with cement. Assuming we have even an inkling of what we’re doing, it must take a special kind of mental gymnastics to focus on the parts we find interesting or exciting and box up the deaths and dismemberings on the shelf labeled non-threatening ideas for the moment. It’s a very particular kind of deception.

I’m not sure it’s a bad thing, as long as we know that we’re lying to ourselves.

War happens. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t or wish it away. At the same time, though, most of us don’t want to go looking for it, and we sure as hell don’t want to help it along. Our best bet, then, is to borrow from Sun Tzu: know your enemy. That means trying to understand war as best we can, even those of us who by accidents of time and place haven’t at this point in our lives heard our friends die beside us or seen the aftermath of a bombing up close.

What we have to go on is stories, the true and the fictional. We read histories, watch dramatizations, and listen to first-hand accounts, and yes, as kids we play these out with our toy soldiers the same way we play house or play funeral. Stories and games are ways we make sense of incomprehensible things like adulthood, like death, like thousands and sometimes millions of people killing each other as fast as energy and ingenuity will let them, like physics and astronomy and entropy.

It’s worth doing. We just have to remember that it’s an inexact attempt at best.

Lucky for us.

Up Front, in case this wasn’t clear, isn’t a book for kids. At all. But there are other books that are, some of them excellent. Nathan Hale’s Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood is a nonfiction graphic novel about World War I. Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki is a picture book about Japanese-American families interned in Idaho during World War II. I’ve previously mentioned Number the Stars.

My grandfather, who spent twenty years in the Army, who never once spoke about his combat experiences in Vietnam when he knew I could hear him, kept his copy of Up Front when he and my grandmother moved to their retirement community and left most of their library with my parents. My grandmother gave it to me when he died.

Folded inside the book is a Life magazine article Mauldin wrote about the 1945 American Legion convention. I don’t know for sure that my grandfather was the person who clipped it; the book has a $1.00 price scribbled inside the cover in pencil, suggesting that it was purchased used, but the arrangement of staples on the article inside looks to me like Grandpa’s doing. He would have been eighteen at the time.

In any case, the article begins on page 38. Page 37, on the flip side, is a full-page black-and-white photograph: “U.S. BOMBERS THAT SCOURGED GERMANY ARE LINED UP FOR SCRAP PILE AT WALNUT RIDGE, ARK.” That war, at least, was over.