Toy Soldiers, Real Guns

Poet Robert Peake asks us to look at war, nihilism and love to start the healing.

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”    -Jiddu Krishnamurti

To talk about healing violence in society, we must talk about war. Because we spend our budget on wars instead of teachers. Then troubled kids go undetected and un-helped. The horrors of violence return to us in unexpected ways. We call them “senseless”, and they feel that way. Yet halfway around the world, a mother is holding the body of her child after a drone attack, and using–in her own language–the same word: “senseless.”

What seems senseless may not be without cause. Which means there may even be a cure.

To talk about healing, we must reach beyond conventional definitions of mental health. Because according to those definitions, the shooter in Norway last year is fit to stand trial as sane. And while we can assess mental health by certain psychiatric standards, we can not asses a human being for their likelihood to commit evil acts. In fact, I think somewhere in all of us that very frightening potential exists as part of the human condition.

To stop the violence, we must stop asking, “How can we prevent people with the potential to do evil from accessing weapons?” and start asking, “Why do we think we all need these weapons in the first place?”

The US actually has a government-sponsored program to assess mental health before issuing people guns. It is administered when they enlist in the military. But since the advent of modern war journalism in Vietnam, right through to the two wars that the US is fighting now, we have been shocked by the reports of evil acts perpetrated by these pre-screened young men, including the mass killing of unarmed civilians.


Young men. It is always young men. Describing myself as a teenager, I use many of the same words that acquaintances used to describe young shooters–bright, oddball, serious, introspective, and definitely a loner. I credit astute teachers around me in my teenage years (including my parents) for helping me to channel my thoughts and emotions constructively to stay out of mischief. Half-jokingly, I sometimes say that they kept me from becoming “a Bond villain.”

But only half. Because sane or crazy, I knew they cared. I knew my actions in the world had consequences for people that I loved and who loved me. I engaged my over-active mind with resources they brought to me–philosophy, history, spirituality, and literature–that helped me to feel less alone in my struggles to understand what being here is all about.

Intellectually, there is nothing more dangerous than nihilism. Emotionally, there is nothing more dangerous than to feel that no one cares.

Because then, anything is possible, in the whole range of human acts.

We are greatly removed from the effects of the wars we prosecute. We are then tempted into nihilism and despair when seemingly random violence comes our way. On the day of the shooting, my Facebook friends posted updates suggesting that we hug someone close to us. Parents that evening squeezed their children tighter than ever when they picked them up safe and sound from school.

To talk about healing, we must talk about love. We must confront what is not love. Violence begets violence, and despair begets despair. But we also never know how much that reaching out to a shy, angry young man with a simple kindness might actually do.

It takes courage to keep caring after a tragedy. It takes courage lay down our weapons and stop the violence, big and small. Such acts may not count as heroism in any headline. Yet they just might be the cure for our collective sickness, the only real way to heal.

photo: puuikibeach / flickr

About Robert Peake

Robert Peake is an award-winning writer and poet. He lives in London, England with his wife Valerie. Visit him online at


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Oh, yeah.
    In the happy days of my youth, society was so backward and benighted that testosterone had yet to be considered a poison.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    I was born in March, 1945. I grew up in a post-war subdivision with houses for young guys with families just getting started. It was like growing up in a giant VFW encampment. Our fathers and uncles and adult male neighbors were veterans. Our scout leaders and gym teachers were veterans.
    They talked endlessly of war. I thought, about ten years ago, that they may have been talking to us by talking to each other in our presence, to prepare us. Given a modest bit of historical foreshortening, they could easily think; you graduate, they give a war. They were right. I asked my father. He said that was it. I talked to my sister. She didn’t hear anything of that when she and her friends were in the presence of two or more fathers. Worked. Going off to Basic was about as exciting as the first week of senior year in high school. Just another thing you did.
    War movies were endless. Endless references. Sid Caeser in his Show of Shows, doing a bit where he was teaching Nannette Fabray to drive. “If you want to turn left, turn the wheel to the left. Right, turn the wheel right. Pull back to climb….” Head goes back, eyes close, passes hand over face. Not hilariouis, but it meant that fifteen million men and their families and friends know that sometimes you forget.
    Western shoot-em-ups were the standard B-movie fare in the double feature days and they were all over television afterwards.
    We shot each other as Japs, Gooks, Krauts, Chinese, Russians, hunted each other in wood lots and construction sites.
    Bond Bread had trading cards with military aircraft. Maybe they were aircraft identification cards to prepare the citizenry. I’m still pretty good going back to WW II, and not only US aircraft.
    Mattel made a disturbingly realistic submachine gun. Can’t recall whose it looked like, ours or the German MP39. Had a crank. You wound up a spring and could shoot an entire roll of caps at full auto.
    There was a long gun with a perforated barrel sheath, and a bipod. Lie down behind it and crank a roll of caps through it as if you were firing some odd squad automatic.
    A GM sedan was the F85. Don’t know what they were thinking, but it slotted nicely in between the Republic F84 Thunderchief and the North American F86 Sabre Jet. Possibly a coincidence.
    A Chevy, I think ’57, had longitudinal fairings in the hood with slanted fins at the front. Just where you would fit machine guns, should you want to mount machine guns on the engine block. IIRC, it was an Olds which had false exhaust ports on the front fenders, just where they’d be on a piston engine fighter.
    The Army had a public info release, “The Big Picture” on tv Saturday mornings.
    Constant references. A Disney kid’s movie had two adults talking about a kid: “His father was XO on mty ship.” No plot utility. But it was there because we expected such things. In “Bye Bye Birdie”, the female lead’s father, being told that Conrad Birdie was eighteen as he was drafted, remarked, “I was eighteen in WW II”. Required but not useful for the plot.
    Went to do some research on old Life mags with my then jr. hi. dtr. What I had thought I rememvered was true. In the fifties, practically every fourth issue had some big article on our military. Current or future.
    We were awash in an atmosphere of vicarious violence. Clearly justified violence–we were all reading Exodus–and heard our fathers’ stories.

    Where am I going with this?
    No mass shootings.
    You need another reason.

    • Richard, thanks for sharing your story. Sounds like you were a close-knit community. As you know, America is a big place; there are many types of communities and individuals. Your story drives at the heart of a question I think we are now facing as a country–as to whether we can move past our individual perspectives (“I am a responsible gun owner in a close-knit community with healthy ways of relating to violence in the world–therefore I should be allowed to do what I want with guns”) to a perspective that encompasses statistics (“Not everyone is like me, and a scarce disturbed few can do great damage if we let things go on this way.”) Are we brave enough, and wide-minded enough, to let go of things that we individually can handle responsibly in order to further the greater good of our country? To me, this also includes war. Because we are reaping what we sow in ways that seem “senseless”. If enemy soldiers did this, we would see the cause-and-effect. But instead, our culture of violence preys–not on you and your community–but on the most vulnerable members of our society, with kids killing kids. That’s the only thing I want to see stop. That’s the only reason I keep writing and thinking about this issue at all.

  3. Thanks for this. I agree it’s important to challenge the loner-equals-dangerous stereotype, which is part of why I point out the prima facie similarities. I don’t think I was at risk of becoming dangerous. But trouble seems to come easy to active minds and tumultuous feelings. And that’s adolescence.

    You also make a good point about “after the fact” remarks on character. I also think it’s possible to hide behind an extrovert facade, so no single set of characteristics really gives us the signals. But we can all agree these kids were troubled. All adolescent males in a country at war that tries hard to disguise that fact, to paint picturesque Norman Rockwell scenes of itself. What I remeber hating most in adolescence was that sense of hypocrisy.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    Is there any real evidence, beyond tired stereotypes, that young men who are “introspective” or “loners” really are more likely to commit violent crimes?

    I suspect that the most likely culprits are young men who want to join their peer groups but are frequently rejected or feel like outcasts. That is NOT the same thing as being an introvert or a loner. An introvert simply likes spending time by himself and doesn’t need as much social contact as an extravert. A loner by preference is very different from a loner by circumstance.

    The loner label is really common after the fact. If someone I know suddenly shoots up a school, I am probably going to distance myself from him when the police and reporters come to my house. “Me, know him? No, he always kept to himself. Well, I wouldn’t say we were friends or anything. I just knew OF him. He was a loner.”

    I don’t think you were more dangerous than average, and if you were, it likely had nothing to do with the characteristics you mentioned. Being a bright, introspective oddball is not by itself any cause for concern, no matter what well-intentioned self-appointed mentors might have told you.

    We should also beware the psychotic extraverts out there hiding in plain sight, the ones who are supposedly well-adjusted because they’re so social.


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