War Stories

Some years ago, in a fit of nostalgia, my husband and I bought a commemorative DVD box set of all the School House Rock videos, plus various other related special features.  My daughter discovered the DVDs a couple of months ago, and it has become her favorite thing to watch on TV.  “America Rock” – the series of School House Rock episodes prepared in 1976 to celebrate the bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, has had the effect of making her a very patriotic little girl, planting lots of American flags in the front yard.  (This in turn has made me nostalgic for my own uncomplicated childhood patriotism – and if you are going to get excited about the U.S., the preamble to the Constitution and women winning the right to vote seem like some good things to hang that pride on.)

But unlike the videos introducing children to multiplication and grammar, these videos do gloss over a lot – and glamorize some things that are too complicated to celebrate without reservation.  Like the settling of the American West, or the Revolutionary War.  It is the question of War that has grabbed my daughter’s attention, and what began as one question: “What was the Revolution, Mommy?” has turned into a weeks long barrage of “Tell me about another war…. OK, tell me more about war?… And why did they do that, Mommy?”

As someone who began considering non-violence by the age of eight, and who was firmly committed to it before graduating from college, these conversations have been difficult.  My daughter is really too young to grasp that adults do a lot of things that don’t make very much sense – she still believes that adults are predictable and rational beings, unless we are being silly on purpose, or are too tired to think clearly.  (As a young child, she has witnessed some very sleep-deprived behavior from her parents!)  People are 100% nice or 100% mean, although she hasn’t met any mean people, so there must not be very many in the world.  It will be years before she can grasp that everyone is a mixture of nice and mean, reasonable and unreasonable – and that that mixture is what we mean in the church when we talk about “original sin” – no matter how good we try to be, there is no avoiding that we fail to do the right thing (or even persist in doing what we know to be wrong) in some measure – or, as Paul puts it:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  (Romans 7:15, NRSV)

This does not keep her from trying to figure it out.  And in the process, she has learned an awful lot of American – and world – history.  I remember reading somewhere that age 6 is the “age of expertise” – when a child begins to specialize in some obsessive area of knowledge, and come to know more about that subject than many adults.  If military history is going to be that obsession, she is already well on her way.  She has delved into the Revolution – the whos (General Washington, King George, the “minute men,” the “red coats,” the French, the Spanish, the Hessians), the whys (taxation without representation, colonialism, parliamentary politics, war financing), the connected whens (after the Seven Years’ War, before the War of 1812, or, as Hannah puts it, “The one when the British came back and tried again.”), the wheres (Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Yorktown)… and has been puzzling over complex questions such as does being “right” justify taking up arms?  Would Constitutional Democracy have been possible in the U.S. without watering the tree of liberty with blood (as Thomas Jefferson put it – a revolutionary who notably did not fight in the American Revolution himself?)

As we have worked our way through other conflicts (the Civil War, the Indian Wars of the American West, WWI, Vietnam, and the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), she has been drawing connections, and struggling with why war happens at all if (as she suggested) it is “always a bad idea to kill people.” (Or, as her friend Nathan added in the backseat, after listening in on one of these extended conversations, “God is sad when we kill each other, and there is lots of killing in wars.”)

She has also been trying to work out how soldiers – usually basically decent young people – could devote themselves to such a “bad idea.”

Just as genocide is a concept that is so beyond a 5 year old that I am keeping it from her at the moment (hence she has no knowledge at the moment of WWII, for instance — though I am unavoidably laying the groundwork, given her interest in Native Americans), so too is the idea of loyalty to the point of violence on behalf of another.  Because so often, “joining up” is not done out of any interest in geo-politics or flexing colonial muscle – but “patriotism” – loyalty to country.  “My country right or wrong.”  As if the generals and admirals and legislators and kings and presidents were the buddy we went to elementary school with.  And that is how good people can give in to a good idea – loyalty is archetypically good, but what about loyalty to entities embodying bad ideas?
She isn’t ready for that idea because she is unfamiliar with adolescent boys and the roots of the barroom brawl, and until she gets a window into that… well, the whole idea of joining the military is likely to be beyond her.  And she is probably going to say some unkind things in her incomprehension.  Just like we all do.  Speak, learn, repent.  Repeat.

I am trying to give her an idea of loyalty on a more global scale (treaties!), and the trouble it can lead to, through our discussions of WWI.  When too many people had promised to stick up for somebody or another if they got involved in a fight, and then they did, and honor demanded that they roll up their shirt sleeves and jump in, escalating a 2 man fight into a full on cue-stick snapping, bottle breaking, chair throwing free for all.

In the meantime, the far more dominant answer to the “why” question – the answer we keep coming back to – is fear – fear and his sister, desire.  These are ideas that a 5 year old can easily understand:  wanting something someone else has, fearing that what she has will be taken from her, or destroyed.  She understands that sometimes she misbehaves out of fear or desire, but she still is puzzled about the killing part.  Why do some grownups reach the point of killing?  We kill because someone has something (oil, land, etc) that we want, or because we think someone wants to take or destroy what we have (our safety, our land, our freedom.)

It has been a difficult few months, working with my little girl through her obsessive concern with state-sanctioned killing and the machines of killing – bayonets and cannons, guns and bombs, planes and helicopters and submarines, land mines and hand grenades… Not long ago, I interrupted her in the midst of her “tell me the story of another war” litany to ask, “It makes me sad to talk about war, Hannah.  Why do you want to know so much about war?”

“I’m just trying to figure it out, Mommy.  I don’t understand about war yet, and so I need to keep asking you more questions.  Can you tell me the story of another war, Mommy?”

And so I took a deep breath, and began, “Did you know that the story of Channukah is a war story?  It is about a miracle that happened during a war a long long time ago, before Jesus was born…”

Dear God, I pray she never thinks she has this figured out.  I pray she can always say, “I don’t understand about war yet…”  Even if it means I must keep on having these conversations in the years and decades to come.  In pain I bring her forth, my beloved child.

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