The Games They Played

The Games They Played

My son received a barrel of toy soldiers at his fifth birthday party this past weekend. He and his almost-seven-year-old brother have been playing with them for three days. These are our first army men, and I’m not ready.

There are two opposing armies – one dark green, the other light green – each with jets, tanks, fences, bunkers, and a variety of well-armed soldiers, but there’s only one helicopter. I told them it was the rescue squad – it picks up injured soldiers from either side and takes them to the hospital.

Later, I overheard big brother saying: “My guy is too injured to get better at the hospital. He had a bullet go all the way through him. He can’t be fixed.”

I called out from the kitchen, “No…Let’s play that the hospital always fixes them. Then they can come back to the war afterwards.”

The boys agreed, but they know as well as I do, even at their young ages, that the hospital doesn’t always fix them.

I’m currently reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I’d heard was good, and it is. It’s good in an uncomfortable way, like watching my little boys play with army men, or watching them wrestle. They love to wrestle. I hate it; someone always gets hurt. But they just can’t stop; it’s in their nature to fight.

The Things They Carried reminds me of another book I recently finished, The Buddha in the Attic, where a large cohort of characters are humanized through quick but detailed shots of their lives, making them simultaneously into relatable individuals and into a cohesive whole. In Buddha, we feel the thousand injustices and cruelties inflicted upon Japanese immigrants before and during WWII. No one character is the protagonist – they all are.

The Things They Carried describes the experiences of US soldiers in the Vietnam War. The author begins by listing all the things the men carried and their weights – both in pounds and in mental load. The burden becomes unbearable.

O’Brien states “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it….You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you.”

O’Brien’s stories are immoral, embarrassing, and they ring true. They also repulse. I do not want my children to experience them; I do not want anyone’s children to experience them.

But it is unlikely that war will end anytime soon. Or become less ugly. It’s in its nature to be ugly.

So, like a million little boys before them, my sons are setting up their army men and shooting at each other. Each win leads to another battle, the soldiers keep coming back for more, and they’re all the good guys. Especially my two.

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