Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Universal Soldier

It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.

Yesterday I went with my class of third graders to the SC Museum’s Confederate Relic Room.  It was one of the most enjoyable and worthwhile field studies we have ever taken together.  In some ways, it was also one of the hardest.

Joe Long, our docent, lives and breathes history.  He went so far beyond the facts, the names and dates of battles and the numbers of people killed.  He told us stories of people’s lives, connected us with journal entries, and anecdotes about the life and death situations of the famous and not-so-famous.  He filled us in on interesting artifacts such as a coffee bean grinder that was used to grind anything-but-coffee since there was no coffee available during the blockade.  He told us of jewelry fashioned by human hair since it would be around far longer than the original owner of the hair itself.  He kept us on the lookout for binoculars with a bullet still lodged in them which no doubt saved the life of the owner as a Union sharpshooter would have surely hit him in the chest had he not carried the binoculars in his vest pocket.  Joe Long made SC History come to life.

But there were moments of sadness there for me as well.  On one wall of the exhibit hung a real musket carried by a soldier in the Civil War, the War Between the States, the war of Northern Aggression.  The gun was in sort of a cradle and was tethered to the wall with a steel cable.  It was not going anywhere. 

The children I was near picked up the gun.  It was long.  Longer than some of my students are tall.  It was heavy, probably 10 or 15 pounds.  They took turns hefting it and were able to swing it away from the wall just a bit.  I held it too.  As I lifted it, there was this eerie feeling of touching and instrument that may have been used to cause the death of other soldiers in that long-ago conflict.  It may have been held by a boy who was running for his life in a battle where he witnessed the death of his friends and comrades.  It was very likely owned by a kid who would rather have been anywhere but where he was ordered to be, protecting the ideas and "honor" of men he would never see, defending an indefensible way of life where the wealth of a few depended on the enslavement of many.  It was probably carried by a young man, maybe not much more than a child, whose family did not own slaves and may have been very poor himself, for although there was a draft, the wealthy could pay someone to take their place in the war.

You can probably guess what my students did.  Almost every boy tried to point it at someone (blessedly the cables were too short) and made well rehearsed shooting noises.  Of course they did.  They were imagining shooting someone with it.  They were staging in their minds themselves as soldiers.  When I was that age I would have done the same.  How could I not?  So much of my little-kid life I spent playing with toy weapons. 

When I was nine or ten I wanted nothing more or less for my birthday than the deluxe Man From U.N.C.L.E. spy kit which included the same kind of fully automatic machine gun used by my hero, Ilya Kuryakan.  And when I did get said gun, which made some pretty realistic shooting sounds, I shot everyone I knew, my parents (who gave me the gun with all of the cool spy gear), my brothers and sisters, my best friends.  For a while I was the kid with the coolest gun among all of my peers.  But then my friend Mike got a similar, but even cooler, Man From U.N.C.L.E. weapons kit used by the other even cooler hero of the show, Napoleon Solo.  Between us, we could have killed every Russian spy, every enemy of the state, every bad guy and bank robber around.  But we just organized games around killing our friends.

Heidi and I were careful when we raised our own boys never to get them wartoys.  And when they did get these as gifts from well meaning friends and relatives for birthdays and Christmas presents, we hid them and soon got rid of them.  We didn’t want our children playing at killing.  But you know they found a way.  I remember vividly being amazed at finding them blasting away at each other with L-shaped sticks or even their fingers.  It seems that a good imagination will do when realistic plastic replicas aren’t available. 

Think of all of the conflicts all over the world.  From local gang killings to large-scale oppression of entire peoples, violence seems to be a way of life for humans.  It is easy to think that it is simply the leadership of countries who draw us into these messes.  That, for reasons of religion, or history, or land ownership, or natural resources, we follow-the-leader into situations that ensure that we sacrifice our youth in our efforts to dominate. 

Consider the notion of the universal soldier.  What if people simply refused to fight and kill?  What if as a people we shouted “NO!” to our leaders who would have us go overseas and do our best to kill the soldiers of our enemy leaders?  What if citizens all over the world said we should wage peace, we should seek ways to overcome our differences, our prejudice?  What if the universal soldier just quietly said “no”?  What if, instead of viewing patriotism as blindly following our leadership into the cycle of violence perpetuating violence, we saw patriotism as working hard for peace and social justice? 

The other question that haunts me after seeing my students pretending to blast each other with that musket is - are we hard wired to kill each other?  Is that simply the way we are made?  Or do we create situations in which children grow up being comfortable doing that?  Are wartoys, violence on TV and movies, violent videogames, at least partly responsible for this positive reaction our children have to killing?  Is our fascination with violence and the availability of real guns contributing to the willingness of people ready to kill or be killed? 

My hippie-sister Ruthie turned me on to Buffy Sainte Marie way back in the 60’s.  A song she sang (written by Donovan), “The Universal Soldier” comes back to me as I write this piece.  Imagine how the violence in this world might be diminished if they held a war and nobody came.

He's five foot-two, and he's six feet-four,
He fights with missiles and with spears.
He's all of thirty-one, and he's only seventeen,
Been a soldier for a thousand years.

He'a a Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain,
A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew.
And he knows he shouldn't kill,
And he knows he always will,
Kill you for me my friend and me for you.

And he's fighting for Canada,
He's fighting for France,
He's fighting for the USA,
And he's fighting for the Russians,
And he's fighting for Japan,
And he thinks we'll put an end to war this way.

And he's fighting for Democracy,
He's fighting for the Reds,
He says it's for the peace of all.
He's the one who must decide,
Who's to live and who's to die,
And he never sees the writing on the wall.

But without him,
How would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone,
He's the one who gives his body
As a weapon of the war,
And without him all this killing can't go on.

He's the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame,
His orders come from far away no more,
They come from here and there and you and me,
And brothers can't you see,
This is not the way we put the end to war.


Chris Hass said...

I was thinking about this very topic a day or two ago. My thought was that we would never let our kids play games in which they pretended to beat their wives, make fun of people with disabilities, or hang African Americans. Not even if they argued "But we're just pretending!" or if society said "Lighten up. It's not as though they're actually going to grow up to beat their wives, ridicule the disabled, or hang people from trees. Pretend play is just part of being a kid."

It wouldn't matter to us that they'd still grow up to be good people because retending to do horrible things to other people is wrong. So why not toy guns? Why does this remain okay with so many people? Why do those of us who don't allow it get smirks or hear about how we're being overly protective?

All I know is that when our country goes to war I don't see that many people who seem to be horrified by what's about to happen to so many people and I can only assume each and every one of them bought their kids an arsenal of toy guns.

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