Endless occupations, big government, the imperial theme, and teen soldiers—not easy topics for high schoolers. Teacher Jeremy McKeen shares his wish for his grown-up students off at war.
“Go and teach Jeremy how to play with G.I. Joes,” I remember a relative saying to one of my older cousins when I was six. I had just received my first G.I. Joe action figure and I was already well-versed in the world of Star Wars toys, although the small guns that came with them weren’t allowed in my pacifist home. My cousin introduced me to the soldier leader toy, “Duke,” and I was hooked—like any child would be.
There is something life-altering for a young boy when he holds his first toy soldier and learns to maneuver, shoot, and maim (although all fans of similar toys and their t.v.-show related franchises know that somehow cartoons never actually suffer).
Toy soldiers never die, you know.
I knew my father would object because we had a strict “no guns” policy when it came to toys; a decade earlier he had stood up against the Vietnam war as a conscientious objector after being first in the draft, and was handed his papers to be shipped off to war. He refused service before a judge, married, and lived, working for the state to stave off his service. I was born a few years later.
In my adulthood I also chose nonviolence as a philosophy, borrowing from Tolstoy, Thoreau, Ghandi, Dr. King, and a host of heroes and heroines who simply said and say no to all violence. As a high school teacher, however, I am often challenged with the reality that my students—who I admire, cherish, and would save from death if I could—join the Armed Forces and are called to violence across the world.
For my generation, there has been no great war—men and women my age escaped a large statist calamity, only to have the slightly next generation suffer at the hands of lawyers-turned-statesmen who ushered us into more than a decade of “real” war in the Middle East.
But high school kids—especially those who live in the inner-city where I teach—are often prime real estate for the picking for an all-volunteer army that always needs soldiers.
1, 2, 3, 4, we don’t want your endless war…
It’s one of those things that will always exist as a rite of passage: young, unmolded children seek reformation and maturation, meet military recruiter, and somewhere between junior year and graduation we have taller, leaner, more polite students with a fire in their eyes. Something is built, and goes, and is replaced, and the student is forever changed.
I have a special affinity for my soldier students—by graduation they’re filled with ambition and obedience, although I know it’s a specific cultish kind, like prep school or religion, a means to an end, where they will call me sir when they don’t need to because they were taught to call me sir. Other students will mature slowly through existential trials and college and early parenthood, without the uniform or world-traveling. There’s an excitement to this, that you can learn a trade, be someone, and serve your country, all at the expense of an occupation or—as the Gods always demand—endless war. I’d rather have my students growing out their stubble and falling out of love in college or some post-high school dreary job than this reality, but because I love my students and I value their freedom to choose their own path in life, I would never stand in their way. And yes, I understand that most soldiers never see action, and that for many of them it is a peaceful career that they and their families are proud of. I’m usually proud as well, and eager to hear about their journey.
In part, this has trained me as a father, in that I won’t always like what my children choose, and I won’t always be able to sit well with it. But I will still have to be supportive and pleasant, even though the risks can outweigh the rewards, and leave us all with a flag-draped coffin and a quiet afternoon of reflection. Most careers are buffered by nonviolence on almost all sides, even if they’re built on violent starts or betting. Soldiering is never one of them.
In America, we worship the soldier, sports star, and celebrity with such reckless abandon it’s hard not to want to be one or the others. But the soldier is always the real celebrated hero and heroine, with service, grit, and humility as credentials, as the hero-worship narrative goes. My young soldiers are asked to take life, protect it, and trade it all within moments of a leader’s decision, all at the detriment of any lesson we covered in Slaughterhouse-five, Brave New World, 1984, Lord of the Flies, or Things Fall Apart. All that retribution we should avoid between the Montagues and Capulets? It’s okay if your country asks it of you. Odysseus’ travels in Hades, encountering his enemies, friends, and family members, who could have avoided death if not for war? Forget the lesson, you’ve got your marching orders.
I abhor violence in every form—against men, women, and children, in prisons and the streets, in schools and against the animals and the Earth. Gang, mafia, and group violence is intolerable, however socially justified, and even more-so reprehensible when it is statist-sponsored, often against its own, but most popularly celebrated by its own against strangers across fields and towns and seas. And as far as justice is concerned, I do not wish my enemies—or those needing punishment—any corner of any hell. (I don’t have any enemies, for one, and I don’t believe in any hell.) If beatings and murder have taught us anything, it’s that the beatings and murder don’t work.
But the hero worship continues, and I get it. I understand that the desire to be something is so tangible in the armed services, especially when you’re 16. The threat of death is real, but what teenager feel invincible? And the reality is that most soldiers will never have to use a weapon, although what teenager wouldn’t want to?
I still don’t want them to go. I don’t want them to spend bullets on the armies and children of our enemies, because they were just children a few days ago, shuffling into my classroom and complaining about every appropriate thing teenagers should complain about.
I just want them to stay alive. And I want the people in foreign lands—those students of other teachers and sons and daughters of other parents—alive too, for as long as possible.
Standing before the gates of Hell
As a middle schooler, I received the heaviest education about the Holocaust by visiting the concentration camp site at Auschwitz-Birkenau and touring Europe while performing I Never Saw Another Butterfly with the American Boychoir School. As a young man, I learned invaluable lessons about life from Holocaust survivors and was privileged enough, at the same time, to live in a nonviolent house, neighborhood, and part of the city, although my hometown is known for violence against its own.
War, I learned, at a young age, is something we used to do, and now we’ve learned our lesson. Only history has taught us that, if we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that we’ve learned nothing from history. But as I became a man I saw the world justify new wars and skirmishes as if they had never existed, and as if no one had ever figured out how diplomacy works.
The insanity of war and genocide numbed me to any kind of narrative of soldier-saving-anyone, as it did to the narrative of the heroics of war in general. War is never kind, and anyone who has lived through one would never recommend it to anyone. Just ask the dead, or their survivors.
Children around the world need education, not militaries
At one point we had over forty violent gangs and crews in the city where I love to teach, and throughout the years, I’ve taught and counseled gang members and former gang members who want nothing to do with violence, but have to accept that it is simply part of the game and life. There is almost no long-term protection once a group has decided that violence is an option, that it is allowable, and dependable; no one should have to live in the shadow of this fear, but yet it is the reality of children city, state, and worldwide. And when that group has unlimited nuclear weapons at its disposal, the unlimited worship of its citizens, and leaders who are willing to trade the lives of my students for any kind of assumed threat, I’m going to always have to say no.
This gum-chewing English teacher just loves his students too much to trade them for some skirmish in some foreign country. There are too many lives to save right here in the homeland.
I wish for the children of the world to be as educated as my students and children are and will be, from pre-K to twelfth grade, taught not to raise guns and blindly follow uniformed leaders, but to have the freedom to choose a way out of poverty other than a militarized reality. I’d rather see 16-year old soldiers around the world be bored in the classroom and worried about pimples and track meets than brainwashed by religion and militarism. But sadly, education is not the first thing dictators and leaders with guns look to in order to raise up a powerful people.
No one—student or otherwise—needs to die for me
“It’s been my dream to be a Marine since I was young,” one student claimed in a heartfelt class conversation before a recent senior graduation. This student, a pupil of mine since he was fresh out of middle school, has grown into a self-aware man, full of potential, wit, and wisdom. And now, like many of my students, he has been broken down, built back up, and is a Marine. I want him to live a long life, full of beauty, success, and learning. He will now always be a Marine, but more importantly, he will always also be my student, even though he’s graduated.
During the same conversation, we—a class including several students going off to basic training for the Army, Navy, and Marines, as well as plenty of students who never considered any of it— talked about the need for fighting, violence, revenge, and justice. Very cooly we arrived at the fact that people will always want to fight, and there will always be people who want to defend and make it their business to serve, whether it calls for violence or not. In that moment I remember being at peace with my students who were going off to become soldiers, as if I had finally let go of the fact that, at the heart of life and civilization, there will always be students going off to war, and there will always be teachers wishing for more time with them in the classroom, where we can be safe from battle and harm’s way.
“When you’re out there about to assassinate someone, shoot high, and let him live,” I told another one of my students, half-jokingly, before he went off to basic training, which included specialized sniper education, for which he later performed. He ended up never firing at any targets during his time in the service while always awaiting the order to.
He’s still alive, for now, in a second career, as are most of my former soldier students, and I hope he and they will be for a long life full of joy, prosperity, and happiness.
Photo: John Cooper/Flickr
Read more of Jeremy’s essays here on Bergamot Ink.