Thursday, July 20, 2006

Boys, toys and militarism



It's hardly controversial to argue that war and instruments of killing are glorified in our society, and that young boys are a particular target of this promotion.

Just walk down the "boys" aisle of any toy store and you see that a huge proportion of toys are military-themed or military-related. My local dollar store, in fact, in its toy section, carries nothing but military toys for boys. Some video games also promote the sense that warfare is fun. And I do believe there is a connection between this promotion of military toys and the tendency of many Americans, especially men, to cheer and support US military action abroad without thinking about the costs to those on the receiving end of US military action, without thinking of the costs to the US soldiers who take part, without thinking about what war really is.

When my son BK was born we began facing the question of how we wanted to raise him, what kind of man did we want him to become. Part of the concern was the hyper-militaristic boy culture in our society, which was reinforced by the typical macho stereotypes foisted on boys from a very very early age.

But then we started to see that our son liked to shoot at things, even though he had no toy guns, even though he did not watch television or violent movies. He found a stick and would use it as a gun. We were quite concerned about this kind of thing.

One day I ran into the son of friends of ours who was about 20. His parents had been active in the peace and feminist movements from the time he as born. He himself is a very cool kid, not at all militaristic or macho; in fact, I'd be thrilled if my own son turned out like this kid.

I talked to him about my concerns -- BK was probably about 5 years old at the time. And he told me his own story. He'd grown up in a feminist, peace-activist household.

Yet he loved to play army and war, he loved to play violent video games. It seemed like such a contradiction.

But he explained that he knew the difference between fantasy and reality. Because his parents had actually talked to him about war, warfare, killing, and militarism, he understood that the fantasies of playing army or playing violent video games were very different than actual warfare.

And as I thought about it, I realized that as a kid I also played army. We'd divide up into opposing armies, and roam the neighborhood "killing" each other with pretend guns. Although there were no video games back then, we watched plenty of tv shows and movies that glorified military action.

And yet, I did not become a militaristic, violent guy.

The point here is that the attitudes of our kids come from many different places. Yeah, there's a lot of pressure and opportunity for our boys to adopt a militaristic mindset, to think of war as "cool" and of violence as normal. But as I wrote earlier in my post about politics and kids, we parents are our kids' first teachers.

Given this societal environment, it's so important that we actually talk to our sons about militarism and war. Of course we need to talk to our daughters about it. But our sons are the main targets, and when they turn 18, the sons of those of us in the US are required to sign up for "selective service" (military service registry).

Given US foreign policy over the past several years -- actually, over the past half-century -- and given the extent to which US military action is glorified in the news, in history books, in newspapers, it's especially important for us as Americans to talk openly and frankly with our kids, and especially our sons, about militarism.

My wife and I have done that. From the time he was little we made sure BK knew what war actually was, putting it in very human terms.

We explained the difference between doing something to defend yourself, and doing something that is closer to bullying. We explained what fighting a war means for people on the receiving end of our missiles and bullets -- not just soldiers but moms and dads and kids. We explained exactly what happens in a war -- people actually get killed and maimed, homes are destroyed -- conveying the immense sadness and tragedy that comes with violence. We explained that unfortunately sometimes leaders, including our own, do not obey the most basic rules of nursery school -- use words, not your hands.

All of this helps make it clear that playing war and "shooting" with sticks, pushing buttons on a gamecube or watching a dvd are not war. They are fantasy. And war is fundamentally different.

Our kids have to know that war is not a game, and that violence should only be used as a very last resort. They have to know that our society tries to create the false impression that war is exciting and fun and bloodless. They have to know that our leaders try to deceive us into believing that we are always justified to use bombs and guns.

Of course BK has a lot of non-violent toys, and he and his friends do a lot of other kinds of play that does not involve war or guns. But when BK plays army, when he plays with his plastic army guys, when he and his friends -- including a good friend whose parents are feminist and pacifist and pretty much on the same page as we are on those issues -- have gunfights, with sticks, with supersoakers, with toy guns (yes, BK somehow has a toy revolver, the kind I had as a kid, and his friends do too), he understands that this is not war.

BK plays with the toys, but he understands that the reality of war is not a game.

Cross-posted at daddychip2

19 comments:

Granny said...

You might get a kick out of this. I'm not recruiting; just passing it on.

Kvatch

Helen H said...

What worked to diferentiate between play and reality was teaching my daughter to shoot at 5. We used a milk jug full of water as a target. She shot a light weight 22 under/410 over with adult help. After seeing the milk jug explode when hit by even the small shotgun shell, she never misunderstood the difference again. She grew into an adult who is not afraid of guns, but is very respectful of them.

Chip said...

granny, thanks, what a great site! and a great idea. Maybe my son will let me use some of his plastic army guys for this project...

helen, I don't think it is even necessary for a kid to see an actual gun or actual gunfire. In my experience, describing the effects and seeing photos of war zones and victims is enough. Also it's important for kids to know that war is not just shooting guns, but the conscious and planned destruction of entire cities and even societies.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

This post touches on a lot of things I've thought about from different angles. I'm not sure I have time right now to say everything I have to say and what I have to say isn't all that coherent. But what the hell -- it's my blog. I get to ramble and contradict myself.

I strongly agree with Helen that children should be taught to use guns. I was taught at an early age how to shoot and it gave me a healthy respect for weapons. It in no way made me pacifist -- perhaps the opposite, which I'll get to in a minute -- but it did, as Helen says, help teach me the difference between fantasy and reality. (Incidentally, this is something my wife and I disagree about; when the time comes, we're going to fight about it.) Also, there are guns in America (many, many guns) and our kids should know how to handle them for safety's sake. I remember when I was ten or eleven, me and my little friend Matt Roeder got into his father's unlocked gun cabinet and started playing. We were actually careful to check that the guns were unloaded and keep the business end pointed away from anything living, but still...we were ten. Parents aren't always around, and some parents are idiots. Knowledge is better than ignorance. You can't just close your eyes and plug your ears and pretend that violence and weapons don't exist -- which is, I think, a liberal/left failure. Too often when violence appears we simply stick our heads in the sand and let someone else -- often someone else lower on the socioeconomic ladder -- deal with it.

But: Why are many boys and some girls so intuitively attracted to violence and weapons? I certainly was. Is it social programming or are we hardwired for violence? Are boys more hardwired than girls? Does teaching the use of weapons and enabling violent fantasies through entertainment encourage real-world violence?

These are troubling questions because of their implications for building a more peaceful, equitable world. My personal answer is that we are in fact hardwired for violence and that, moreover, violence is sometimes necessary. I also think that boys are in fact more intuitively, physically violent than girls. I realize that there are sociological and anthropological studies that could be cited to argue one side or the other, but the best evidence I have is my own feelings, experiences, and perceptions. They tell me that violence exists inside of us; it's not something we can separate from our humanity. Sometimes we might need to be violent in order to assert our basic humanity (see Fanon, I suppose).

From this perspective video games, violent movies, etc. -- indeed, all fantasy violence -- perform crucial, ritualistic social functions and provide a way to regulate violent impulses that don't have anywhere to go in a relatively safe and affluent society like ours. (It really is relatively safe and affluent; spend a week in one of the countries where the USA has tried to impose "democracy" if you need perspective; our violence is displaced.) That's why censorship is so useless; video game violence doesn't cause violence; it contains it. All those pixelated casualties are bloodless sacrifices we make to the gods of war, to keep the war of all against all at bay.

This is a seductive way of thinking and I think it's dangerous to stop there. Societies have regulated violence in all kinds of ways; they come up with rituals and warrior codes and games and more. The content of such rituals and ideologies matters; some societies really are more violent, dehumanizing, and barbaric than others.

And I'd argue that ours might actually be on the extreme end of the scale. I might believe that video games perform an essential function in containing violent impulses -- but my God, what does the contents of those games reveal about our society? Horrible things.

Most warrior codes explicitly forbid sadism and violence against helpless individuals, prisoners and civilians. Sure, the codes are fragile and can fall apart in a moment of bloodlust, but they exist and they save lives. We should not be surprised that atrocities happen in wartime; we should be surprised that they don't happen more often.

But even more important than the warrior code is the ability to think critically and question authority, especially in extreme, difficult situations. Our kids need moral imaginations we well as ethical guidelines.

But few such restraints exist in the American imagination as revealed in action movies, video games, etc. -- these are fantasies that glorify sadism and dehumanization. And who can doubt that they play a role in the torture and massacre of Iraqi civilians? Worse -- perhaps this is just reactionary grousing on my part -- the ability to think critically and morally appears to be in retreat. This all affects the behavior of soldiers on the battlefield, but more importantly, it primes our society to make war on foreign soil.

Chip's guidelines make a lot of sense. We have to talk to our boys and girls about war, militarism, and violence. I think it matters for us as individuals; I'm not sure if it will affect the direction of our society. It seems to me that an antipathy towards organized violence had grown in our society after Vietnam, which translated into limits on military action. Today those limits are being stripped away. Perhaps there's nothing we can do now to stop the violence, but we can do what we can to shape the next generation.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Followup thought: we are just as hardwired (I believe) for compassion, altruism, and cooperation. There's quite a bit of scientific research to back this up.

In fact, violence often goes hand in hand with such behaviors: communal violence is often fueled by communal solidarity, though I'd argue that one undermines the other over the long run. Soldiers must cooperate in order to win; it could be argued that armies are the best examples we have of altruism and cooperation -- up to a point.

But that's not what I meant to say. What I meant to say is that anyone who has raised a child knows that s/he can be hitting one minute, helping the next. Toddlers want to help; they're learning, getting socialized. They're also learning to survive and get what's theirs, or what they see as theirs, and defend themselves against threats. Where we draw the line, and how we identify threats, is an ethical question. All these qualities and behaviors exist within us; we have to find a balance that fits with our environment. When we lose the balance, bad things can happen.

I recently been thinking that "utopia" is not so much a place where the dark has been expunged, but instead a place where light and dark can exist in balance with each other. That may be as close as we can get to perfection. It may even be better for us to be more dark than light. (See Moby Dick and Ishmael's musing on the earth and the ocean!)

Chip said...

Jeremy, Yes, societies ritualize violence. And I think most societies, in the process of doing that, also contextualize it in the ways you note. You are right, ours does not do that, and in fact I believe the much of the violence we see in games, toys, etc. is not about the traditional role of violence, but rather to desensitize boys especially to the violence. That's why our job as parents is to provide that crucial context, to recognize this play as play -- and actually it is not violence, no one is actually hurt (since I'm not talking about physical fighting, which never happens with my kids and their friends).

I don't think people are "naturally" violent, though I think people are willing to use violence to protect things that are important to them, as a last resort. What's fascinating though is how hard it is to actually get guys to kill other guys. There was a report on this in the last year or so (in the New Yorker I think), about how during WWII in the US Army a huge percentage, over half, of guys fired their guns into the air rather than aiming at the enemy soldiers, and this proved a huge obstacle to the army, which had to try to figure out how to get guys to kill other guys. I don't think it's natural to kill others and it's darned hard to get most people, guys included, to do so. But as people who have been involved in atrocities note, the first one is the hardest, and then it gets easier somehow. That said, I think the violence we see in places like Bosnia and Rwanda are not specific to those places, and placed in similar contexts, Americans would act and react very much the same (Peter Maass's book on the war in Bosnia is great in making this point).

As for guns, I disagree, though I suppose it matters where you live. As I noted in my comments to this post over at my blog, kids don't need to actually experience sex or use drugs to understand them and learn about them. In this small NE city where we live, few people have guns (though maybe more out in the countryside), and none of the parents of our kids' friends. I am perfectly happy that my kids have never seen a real gun and don't know how to use them. If when they grow up they want to, that's their choice.

Finally I think you are right about utopia. Although given the way that people who have power seem to be willing to go to any lengths to keep it, I'm not very optimistic about any utopian vision in the foreseeable future if ever; but maybe that's the dark that balances out the light...

Helen H said...

You are just unaware, Chip. I'm sure you know several folks who shoot and/or own guns. If they know you well, they are unlikely to ever bring the subject up.

I live in a small NE city. We have 3 guns locked in a cabinet in the basement. I don't believe we currently have ammo for any of them. I'm absolutely sure my neighbors have no idea.

I have friends in NH and ME who not only own guns, but use them several times each year to hunt and several other times each year for shooting contests (mostly skeet). One of the young engineers who used to work for my husband was from a town on I-95/128, western suburban Boston. He was on the shooting team in college. He learned to shoot in his grandfather's backyard, in his hometown, about 25 years ago.

Helen H said...

When my daughter was 5 and we taught her to shoot, we lived in Idaho. Idaho is a hunting and fishing kind of place. Several of my husband's siblings, in whose homes we spent time, and many of our friends and acquantances owned guns and hunted. It was important that our children know what they were capable of doing should they point a gun and pull a trigger.

Chip said...

helen, no, I know for sure, because we explicitly ask people where our kids go if they are not good friends of ours. My dad had a hunting rifle when I was growing up, so I am aware that many people in the NE do hunt, especially in rural areas. I do not believe however that I have to bring my kids to actually use guns. As with sex and drugs, I think explanations suffice.

Besides, what we're talking about here is not guns per se, but warfare, and the glorification of war and violence undertaken in our name by our government.

Helen H said...

Chip, you specifically said you did not believe it was necessary fr a kid to see and actual gun or gunfire. A child living in a community where hounting is common or who has family who are gun collectors and/or hunters (many of whom are not as careful as I about ensuring the guns are always locked up and seperated from ammo) does have a need. Unless their parents wrap them in cotton and refuse to let them ever leave the house, they will come within range, and perhaps in direct contact, with guns. Jeremy grew up in the Midwest. Much of it has a hunting culture, too. Should Jeremy not allow his son to visit family there because they might own guns? Or their neighbors might?

Neither my city, nor the one on the I-128/95, is rural. Haverhill? Newburyport? Lawrence? Southburough? Somerville? None really rural, not in my opinion. Of course, I haven't shot since we moved here either. Too population dense.

Do you know everyone in your neighborhood? If so, you are much more outgoing than most of my old NE neighbors, some of whom I did not meet until we had lived in our house several years. I'm pretty sure my immediate neighbors both across the street and to the south have firearms. I know the one across the street hunts.

Chip said...

helen, I think you're misunderstanding my points.

First, I said my kids. I am not telling anyone else what to do. I am talking about my children in my neighborhood. It is highly unfortunate, in my view, how pervasive guns are in US society. Our decision to ask about guns, to not have our kids go to homes where there are guns, is our decision, and fortunately our kids are not trapped in our house. I have no doubt that somewhere within a mile of my house there is a gun. But my kids do not need to see a real gun to know how dangerous they are. If you choose to give your five year old shooting lessons that is fine, I'm not saying you shouldn't, nor am I telling anyone not to have their kids see and use guns.

Anyway, this is moot. I am not telling you what to do, I am describing what I do, and why. It is a reflection of my beliefs and values.

And again, this is getting off the topic, which I think is very important given the current administration's war-mongering.

My main concern: to innoculate my son against the militarism that leads all too many US people to see war as unproblematic, and that makes invisible the actual victims and effects of warfare. And my point was that they can know about that and still play with plastic army guys and sticks. I think we can agree on that.

Chip said...

PS yes, I actually do know all of my neighbors, one of the reasons I love my neighborhood! :-)

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

A couple weeks ago I received a book called "On Killing," by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. Prompted by this discussion, I started reading it yesterday.

It's an interesting, humane, and erudite book. It's important to note that Grossman is strongly pro-military; liberals and progressives will find his perspective and conclusions somewhat challenging.

I'm still reading it, but a couple points relevant to this discussion jumped out at me.

1. It's an empirical fact (according to numerous studies) that people must be trained to kill and are by and large extremely reluctant to engage in violent, offensive acts in a military context (as opposed to defending yourself against a criminal assault). "The vast majority of combatants throughout history, at the moment of truth when they could and should kill the enemy, have found themselves to be 'conscientious objectors.'" Firing rates (discharging a weapon at the enemy on command) in WWII were actually very low.

2. However, firing rates were extremely high in Vietnam and subsequent wars. Grossman cites much "better" training and conditioning in today's military -- they've gotten better at priming soldiers to kill.

3. Grossman also feels, however, that since WWII our society has been conditioning children to kill through video games etc. His argument is complex and I'm still absorbing it. Briefly: he draws a parallel with training police or airline pilots to react to emergency situations: "precise replication of the stimulus that they will face and then extensive shaping of the desired response to that stimulus." Likewise, "we do not _tell_ schoolchildren what they should do in case of a fire, we _condition_ them" with fire drills. "Through the media we are also conditioning children to kill; and when they are frightened or angry, the conditioning kicks in." Naturally, there are many other factors in play, such as poverty, discrimination, etc. "Another way to look at this is to make an analogy with AIDS. AIDs does not kill people; it simply destroys the immune system and makes the victim vulnerable to death by other factors." What we have in our society, he argues, is an "Acquired Violence Immune Deficiency."

4. The result is a violent society and a violent military, historically unprecedented. He seems to argue (I'm still reading) that this is bad for the military and bad for society, because it increases the likelihood of senseless or atrocious violence, and that today's military needs to adjust conditioning to restrain as much as enable violence in soldiers. He also seems to make an argument similar to the one I make above, which is that the content of the games -- they moral and ethical guidelines they embody -- matters a great deal in conditioning behavior.

Chip said...

Jeremy, I think that is the study the New Yorker article I mentioned above is referring to.

Let me just add to clarify, that even if my neighbors did have a gun I would feel the same way about my kids not needing to actually use real guns to understand the dangers.

MC Milker said...

Very thoughtful article - we explore many of the same issues in our home. Since I am midway through writing a post on a similar subject, my thoughts are a bit jumbled but, are as such...

I believe that boys are, to some extent hard wired to play with weapons. Your comments on explaining the reality of war, why they are fought and who are the causalities make sense and should be a parental duty when observing war play in children.

I recently found mention that two of my favorite toy manufacturers, Lego and Playmobil, limit weapons to "fantasy" - that is pre-industrial revolution (with a few minor exceptions - police officers, etc.) and space age weapons- keeping gun "play" firmly in the realm of fantasy. I believe this encourages boys to focus on all aspects of war not just that of killing.

My, somewhat garbled two cents :-)

Anonymous said...

Here's a helpful possible solution: get rid of your TV now.

Sounds silly, huh? I mean it: get rid of your TV NOW, if you care about your children.

Anonymous said...

I've been dealing with this very same thing, and actually loose sleep over it. My son is only 7! I personally to not believe in war at all, do not believe such violence actually "fights terrorism", and my son will never be a part of it regardless of what the "law is", what the "needs for soliders" are or whatever, nor should he be a target any more than any female in the coming years. I find it rather disgusting when people that hold onto the false notion that "supporting our troops" means clapping for those girls and boys and saying we are "proud" for them, yet protect their daughters more than their sons, or expect someone elses sons to fight the dirty wars THEY BELIEVE IN! We have women in combat now, and I've heard predictions it will be closer to 50% women in combat sooner than we think. While I don't think ANYONE should be targeted for war, certainly there stands no compelling reason for boys to be targeted anymore than girls. We've had a womens movement, an industrial movement (robotic warfare takes no physical power) and not all men are stronger than all women anyhow, which renders that mute. Women are projected to be possibly required by law to register for Selective Service as well at age 18 (there are trailers on that, google it) which is a step in the right direction as far as non-discrimination against men (and women for that matter). I don't think anyone should be "required" to register, but as long as the US engages in useless wars, we need to be non gender discrimitive. My hubby (who was a brave consceientious objector in 73 when the unethical extremist regime tryed to draft him to Vietnan) told me to to worry, I am an MBA, he a PhD we both are both significant income generators...which made me even more upset, like as if socio-economic status should even matter anyhow? All life is precious, regardless, and war does not protect our nation, quite the opposite. It feeds the military profit machine, like a mafia motive. About those toys....although war, weapons etc are no more "boys toys" than girls toys, they ALL love them as much as the next in reality....more a conditioned thing "don't play with that, its not "ladylike". I let my son have his StarWars, nerf gun and what not to play out his fantasy, which he does with the girls as much as boys. But we need to stop being neorotic patriotics overprotecting our girls any more than boys. I know of 4 young men that committed sucicide. Common traits: Charismatic, well liked, smart, captain of footbal and baseball teams....common denominator? they were brought up believing "boys hve to be tough" or "hold feelings in" or "register for selective service". My son will never register without the big CO. And I am so proud!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I've been dealing with this very same thing, and actually loose sleep over it. My son is only 7! I personally to not believe in war at all, do not believe such violence actually "fights terrorism", and my son will never be a part of it regardless of what the "law is", what the "needs for soliders" are or whatever, nor should he be a target any more than any female in the coming years. I find it rather disgusting when people that hold onto the false notion that "supporting our troops" means clapping for those girls and boys and saying we are "proud" for them, yet protect their daughters more than their sons, or expect someone elses sons to fight the dirty wars THEY BELIEVE IN! We have women in combat now, and I've heard predictions it will be closer to 50% women in combat sooner than we think. While I don't think ANYONE should be targeted for war, certainly there stands no compelling reason for boys to be targeted anymore than girls. We've had a womens movement, an industrial movement (robotic warfare takes no physical power) and not all men are stronger than all women anyhow, which renders that mute. Women are projected to be possibly required by law to register for Selective Service as well at age 18 (there are trailers on that, google it) which is a step in the right direction as far as non-discrimination against men (and women for that matter). I don't think anyone should be "required" to register, but as long as the US engages in useless wars, we need to be non gender discrimitive. My hubby (who was a brave consceientious objector in 73 when the unethical extremist regime tryed to draft him to Vietnan) told me to to worry, I am an MBA, he a PhD we both are both significant income generators...which made me even more upset, like as if socio-economic status should even matter anyhow? All life is precious, regardless, and war does not protect our nation, quite the opposite. It feeds the military profit machine, like a mafia motive. About those toys....although war, weapons etc are no more "boys toys" than girls toys, they ALL love them as much as the next in reality....more a conditioned thing "don't play with that, its not "ladylike". I let my son have his StarWars, nerf gun and what not to play out his fantasy, which he does with the girls as much as boys. But we need to stop being neorotic patriotics overprotecting our girls any more than boys. I know of 4 young men that committed sucicide. Common traits: Charismatic, well liked, smart, captain of footbal and baseball teams....common denominator? they were brought up believing "boys hve to be tough" or "hold feelings in" or "register for selective service". My son will never register without the big CO. And I am so proud!!!!!!

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