Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s 14 year-old son is obsessed with guns and war, and she wonders what it all means.
Guns and knives and war.
That’s pretty much what we’ve got going at my house, me and my fifteen-year-old son. The guns are so far not real, though they’re close: they have almost the heft of the real thing, but they shoot plastic pellets. We have a gun show on the calendar in a few months, at which R. dearly hopes to find an actual Springfield M1903, the rifle that went into the trenches of the Great War in the hands of the U.S. Army (and notably in those of one Corporal York, whose marksmanship — not to mention raw heroism — with the bolt-action gun enabled him and just seven confederates to kill 32 German soldiers and capture 132 others, along with 35 of their machine guns). It was still used 30 years later by some divisions in the next multinational conflict, and even into the beginning of the Vietnam travesty. It was a good gun.
I got this information from one of our household’s approximately 14 extensive encyclopedias of munitions (including The Shooter’s Bible, left under the tree last Christmas by Santa with thoughtful consideration of the holiday’s true origin). In our house these compendia have numerous kin on such topics as military transport, soldiers and their regalia, and centuries’ worth of battle in every corner of the world. Oh, who are we kidding, “numerous”? Whole shelves full.
We will be paying our $5 entry fee to the gun show, where I expect we will have to bite our tongues in the presence of the Truthers and far-right wingnuts drawn to these conventions, because despite our lefty pacifist leanings my son is planning his next move in the apparent direction of full-on militarism. He wants to join a reenactment unit, which permit grown men to play soldier with a pleasingly high degree of verisimilitude. Everything, in fact, short of mortal wounds (they use blanks). I have decided not to probe the mystery of how I came to have not one but two friends who were Civil War re-enactors, and moreover symmetrically: one wore gray, the other blue. They’ve been helpfully informative on the subject to both of us; now I understand what a farby is.1
What I am left to try to piece together on my own is why these gentle souls are so fascinated with war, with humanity’s persistence at refining brutalism to the highest art. Over history more ingenuity and resources have been expended on methods of doing away with our brethren than anything devoted to the peaceful pursuit of life.2
On aesthetic merit alone, separated from its intention, which of course it cannot be (see below), war and its effects should fill the Metropolitan Museum and the Louvre combined. Oh, wait. Basically they do. Great halls and vast vitrines filled with finely wrought accoutrements of war: armor and ceremonial swords and gunstocks inlaid with silver and mother of pearl. Sculpture galleries atumble with ancient pediments and statuary of dying warriors, victorious cavalry. And paintings—oh, the paintings. Uccello, da Vinci. Goya, Velazquez. Delacroix, Copley, Turner, Manet. Picasso.
Grand, undeniable, and bloody. Under the indirect lighting in the worshipful quiet of the museum, we steep in the gory immediacy of the heroic moment. Here, we have to admit we love war. It’s so very, very beautiful.
The other significant portion of art in the museum of history is devoted in one way or another to voluptuousness: nudes, fruits, flowers, and alluring costume. We have two main concerns then. Mass killing and the procreation of more beings to feed the former. Apparently neither can be stopped.
My son has a gentle and compassionate bent toward all the living, with a sensitivity to injustice that is easily aroused. He also comes alive when arguing the finer points of military arms, like the superiority of the M1893 “Spanish” Mauser to the Krag-Jorgensen (Spanish-American War, Battle of San Juan Hill), often rolling his eyes at my extraordinary ignorance of mixing up a repeater with a semiautomatic. Can you believe it? His look of incredulity is exactly the same one he gave me when he was a train-mad four-year-old and I would point to the pretty locomotive. “That’s a diesel!” He would scowl. He had no use for a maglev, either. I had no idea how he had educated himself to this extent; most of the picture books we gave him were as generally dismissive of the child’s attention to period and mechanical detail. The only two possibilities are that he’d done it through the ether or by way of some chromosomes.
The debate on whether males are more warlike than females is both eternal and divisive. I am not going to step on that landmine. Except that I already did, in giving birth to a boy. This creature, who I should be ashamed to admit I was proud to introduce to the supreme liberal convention of the antiwar protest when I still wore him in a Baby Bjorn (I blanch), refused to be the clay in my hands I naively assumed children were. Why, I would raise my son outside of traditional gender stereotypes; if I gave him stuffed animals but no toy guns, took him to classical concerts but not football games, why, he would grow to eschew violence and embrace violets. Yeah, well, bullshit. He found sticks on his forest hikes that could be broken in such a way as to resemble a Glock.
I have since been mildly infatuated with the scientific literature on the culture and biology of violence, including its gender breakdown; men are currently responsible for 90 percent of the world’s homicides and start pretty much all its wars. (Though it is argued that without women’s encouragement or at least acquiescence in providing soldiers for the latter, armies would only attain a size suitable for barroom brawls and not internationally destructive conflicts. Then there’s Margaret Thatcher to explain.) The “male warrior hypothesis,” which stipulates an evolutionary source for male violence in general—if not for male-on-female violence, a topic much in the news of late—is countered with an historical theory that places the origin at the time of a shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural society. It’s either in our DNA or it’s in our culture—in which case the remedy is awareness and education. Emma Watson is on the right track.3
The next step, after a rousing speech to the UN identifying the culprit, gendered culture, would necessarily be to come up with the prescription for change. More words?
John Brown, once upon a time, thought not. The abolitionists, among them some of the finest orators the English tongue has ever produced, availed little that was solid against the grotesque injustice of slavery. What did was a whole lot of bloodshed.
I watch my son applying brain-damaging glue to the minute plastic parts of A7V German and MkIV British tank models. He is bent over the project with a focus so intense it is as if his life depended on it. In the truest sense it does. A fascination with war is fundamentally a fascination with life. It is a fascination with trying to ascertain in the most granular way who we are—because, I have come to believe, when we become lost in those dumbfounding pages detailing the hours and minutes of a battle, when we can’t turn our eyes from a screen splashed with gore after the grenade hits the foxhole, we are really trying to imagine what it might feel like to us. We are trying to inhabit the uninhabitable moment of being asked to subvert our very essence, to do anything to survive. In war the soldier agrees to a perversion of life itself: to go willingly toward death. It is impossible to grasp, yet there it is. Done. By millions. But how, we cannot think. Instead we try to feel.
I do not know if I have any right to suppose this, but I have a suspicion a fascination with war occurs mainly — only? — to those who have never had to experience it. Because that is the dreadful fascination. The one man I knew well who had been there, a kid, not all that much older than my own child now, suddenly thrown from the streets of the Bronx into the jungles of Vietnam as a LRRP to patrol the front of the front lines (in a war that barely had any lines at all), refused to talk or read anything about the war he had managed somehow to survive. Now, the Gothic War or the Civil War or World War II—no one studied them more. But the hellfire he had narrowly escaped: never. He left his Army and Ranger badges to my son.
When he was young, we used to worry that our child might become one of those men who grow up and still play with trains — one of the slightly odd creatures we would see at the annual open house of the local model train club, peevishly repeating that these elaborate and delicate layouts weren’t toys for children. But who were they? Not fully matured, it seemed; more like suspended in size forever between boyhood and an adulthood that never quite fit. But I am relieved to see the obsession with the mechanical has taken its normal progression in R. No longer engines and intricate railroad layouts around the living room floor. Now, a more mature desire to be a military historian. And with it an obsession with the weaponry of death. Gorgeous in its startlingly cold, awesome potential.
For I can see it too. I look at a gun and feel very much the same combination of pure sensation and thrill that stirs me when I consider the alluring lines of a motorcycle. I marvel, not just with the intellect but with my gut, at an aesthetic economy, at an ability to suggest. My attraction to the gun as object is both separate from and completely at one with its purpose: to render harm. Great, grievous, ultimate harm. I abhor killing, anything, and I abhor war. But considering it makes me consider life with an intensity unmatched by anything else. I am unable to repel its pull.
I think that Corporal York was a good hero with a good gun, and those things are inseparable too.
When I was the same age as my son as he started to daydream about medieval archers, I started to read about the Civil War. Not so much the war itself—the battle maps in my books, with their arrows showing positions on the afternoon of June 28, Ewell moving southwest from York, Stuart’s cavalry up from the Potomac, and Meade’s tentative defensive position, always blurred together so I could never keep straight whether Jubal Early was Confederate or Union—but the instantaneity of calamity itself. I looked at the photos and thought so hard my head ached. Not about the strategy of taking Little Round Top. But about what it might be like to have to stand up from cover behind one of its rocks and continue heading upward through smoke so thick there was no way to see where in it death hid. And it was there all right.
The war soon took up so much space in my brain there was little room for anything else. With my father I visited battlefields; I assembled scrapbooks and got a subscription to Civil War Times Illustrated. It invaded my dreams. There too I tried to imagine what it was like to walk into obliterating fire for the first time. I almost could, but then I couldn’t, at the last minute. There was a ripping in my imagination that was nearly audible, my desire to know pulling fiercely against the fear that I actually didn’t want to know any of it. Before I ever read it, I experienced in my childish imagination something of Stephen Crane’s purpose in writing The Red Badge of Courage. To try to know something of the unknowable.
The main thing here — besides noting the peculiarity of being a girl who within a few years of ending her subscription to the war history magazine got one to Vogue, which pleased her almost as much — is that whenever I imagined myself running up hills in the July heat wearing a wool uniform and carrying a ten-pound rifle, 60 rounds, and 35 pounds of other gear, and not having had much to eat or drink after walking most of the night also carrying that weight, I only imagine myself doing it as a boy. The sensations are real, or as real as I can make them in my fevered thoughts amplified by having read the work of the great historians, the ones who knew how to make me practically feel the sweat fall into my eyes and the sound of the artillery, and I think they must be identical to what happens to R. in those forests of the Ardennes in his mind.
We are somehow one and the same, and we have a lot of company too. There are so many of us thinking about war. There always have been.
We have talked, my son and I, about the notion of “the glorification of war.” This is generally understood to be a terrible thing. But heroism is glorious. What is not is the evil cynicism of those who send into annihilation these heroes in order to profit. Which seems to include an altogether large number of America’s wars. We discuss, too, which wars might be considered “just.” And come up empty a heartbreaking lot of the time.
Like R., I am drawn most to movies of war. Anything else seems a mere entertainment, especially as my life grows shorter: what time I have left I want to spend at the experiential top. It can be argued that film’s finest hours have resulted from depicting war. The cinema’s unique capacities rise highest when meeting the challenge of expressing the wonders of life — and doing so by examining the wonders of why we voluntarily bring it to an end. The best of these war movies are the ones considered most realistic, which is to say, the most revelatory of its degrading horrors. We watched Saving Private Ryan, and we watched Glory. We watched Paths of Glory and Band of Brothers. The harder they were to watch, the more magnificent they were. We decide you can’t unglorify war; when you do, you glorify it more.
My son finally reassured me he would never be a 50-year-old bachelor, alone with his model trains, when he began to ask questions about his own character. It first took the form of obsessively drawing pictures of knights and samurai, dressing like them for Halloween and collecting replicas of their sharp swords. He was trying on the persona of the warrior in a quest to know himself. Could he become the man who would not flinch? Could he know honor by casting aside personal interest? (Or, to express it in the context of another theory, could he fulfill his biological mandate as a male of his peculiar species?)
He’s not yet done in his progression to manhood. In another year or two his weapons will probably be real. But the next step will not be, as you might think a pacifist mother would fear, toward the use of those bullets to fulfill their true fearsome purpose. Any more than my girlhood love affair with one of the greatest conflagrations in American history caused me to permanently inhabit one September day of 1862, unstuck from reality by staring too long at the photographic evidence of all that broken life piled up in the Bloody Lane near Antietam Creek. Instead, it drew me close to the edge of death, where beyond it life is as fully visible as it can ever be. And life, I think, is what my son will meet when he at last storms over the edge of a replica trench onto No Man’s Land to find it strangely his.
About the author
Melissa Holbrook Pierson writes about lots of different things, but her favorite is the passage of time. Her web site is here.
This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.
Photo credit: Wikipedia