Editor's Letter: Conflict and moral clarity

Watching how children play army can be instructive. When I was a kid in Ohio, for example, we didn't want to play Vietnam—we wanted to fight the Nazis. 

When I was a kid in Ohio, I played army with the older boy across the street. It was late in the Vietnam War, when politics were poisoned across the land. My friend’s prized possession—I was allowed to play with it on the rarest occasions—was a toy M16. It looked like the real thing, used by real soldiers in the real war—in Vietnam. But we didn’t want to play Vietnam. By the 1970s, who did? Even kids registered the widespread angst it engendered. So it was tacitly understood that our backyards were not Vietnam but German-occupied Europe. Fighting Nazis was a sure bet; we didn’t care that the M16 hadn’t been invented until after WW II.

I thought of this the other day when my 11-year-old asked why torture was employed in another murky, unsettling conflict. I often plead for time when I get a difficult question from my kids. Then, after contemplation, I produce a response notable largely for its failure to satisfy. This time, I delivered the inadequate response forthwith. “Fear,” I replied. Granted, it’s not much for an 11-year-old to hold on to. But I figure it’s probably not a topic she wants to dwell on in any case. I suspect that’s also true for the heirs to the suburban battlefields where I once snuck up behind obliging German phantoms. News of waterboarding, stress positions, and the like has surely filtered down to the neighborhood’s sandbox warriors. But if the video generation plays war at all, I wouldn’t be surprised if they train their anachronistic lasers on the Nazis. Given the choice, who wouldn’t sacrifice a little verisimilitude for moral clarity?

Francis Wilkinson

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