By Andrea Lani
Milo emerges from the basement, dressed in full camouflage regalia: knee-length jungle camo shorts, held up with a tan fake-leather belt, long-sleeved jungle camo T-shirt, olive and green camo cap, with plastic mesh back and John Deere logo over the stiff brim. On his feet he wears cobalt-blue knee-high mud boots—Christopher Robin meets G.I. Joe. Over his shoulder he has slung a green Army surplus bag. His steps are accompanied by the tinny music of his survival kits—Altoids tins stuffed with a cork and fishhook, needle and thread, Band-Aids and alcohol swabs, and other emergency items—rattling in his pockets. In one hand he carries a long stick, curved at one end into a vaguely rifle shape, in the other a longer stick with a small American flag taped to the end.
He heads toward his fort. Milo has claimed for his own the space under our playhouse, which opens onto our deck and sits several feet up off the ground on posts. He’s dug a network of tunnels and foxholes roofed in bark and giant rhubarb leaves for his plastic Green Beret action figure to inhabit.
The military has become eight-year-old Milo’s latest obsession. With his own money he bought the Eyewitness Soldier book at his school’s book fair, he checks out endless volumes on both World Wars from the library, he fills notebooks with ballpoint-pen drawings of fighter planes and jets engaged in combat, he dresses in his military get-up almost daily, and for his last birthday he had two friends over after school, also dressed in camo, to eat Army beans straight from the can and a shrink-wrapped, freeze-dried military-issue meal that included a self-heating rectangle of “turkey” and pouches of pudding, coffee, and orange drink provided by one of the friends, whose dad is in the Air Force.
At my core, I am a pacifist. During the Persian Gulf War, as editor of my high school newspaper, I polled students on their response to the war. I wrote a dispassionate article, but in my heart I sided with the rag-tag group of kids assembled in the commons carrying protest signs. During the early days of our current war in Iraq, I stood one vigil with Women in Black, and while I found the experience at times moving and uplifting (as well as freezing cold and boring), I never felt compelled to go back. While I might have once imagined myself carrying small children to peace rallies, the reality of mothering hasn’t allowed me much time or energy for taking on the military-industrial complex. But watching my son dressed as a mini-Marine gives my heart pause.
Milo first showed an interest in weaponry when, at one-and-a-half, he connected a square Duplo to the bottom of a rectangular Duplo, pointed at me and fired. Any veteran parent could have told me I reacted in exactly the wrong way if I wanted to discourage gun play: I freaked out, which of course delighted and encouraged him. Every remotely L-shaped stick or toy became a gun in my preschooler’s hands. (I took some comfort, and felt not a little bit smug, that Milo never bit his toast into a gun shape as I had heard other boys did, but his younger brother disillusioned me when, at the age of three, he shot me with part of a grilled cheese sandwich). By the time Milo was four he had assembled a regular arsenal from crayons and pencils taped together into pistol formations. At this point I threw up my hands in defeat: I was at once exasperated with his gun-focus, annoyed with the waste of perfectly good art supplies, and impressed with his ingenuity.
Before I had children, I thought my own gun policy would be simple to enforce: I would not buy gun toys. But here I had a child, barely more than a baby, who perhaps had seen another child build a Lego gun, or had seen a movie with a gun at daycare and decided to build his own or, for all I know, had the blueprint for weapon-making encoded in his DNA. As much as I don’t want to believe that violence (or violent play—there is a difference) is what naturally makes a boy a boy, six-and-a-half years and two more boys later, I have a hard time believing it’s not.
As I slowly began to accept the inevitability of Milo’s gun creation and play, I would try to talk to him about the complexity of issues around killing and war. When I told him that killing is wrong, he would tell me that he only kills “bad guys,” and I would try to explain to him that even bad guys have mothers who love them and would be very, very sad if their son got killed. The discussions did not seem to penetrate very deeply—there is something about that age that needs the certainty of a binary world. With everyone from Disney to the then- president dividing the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” I could hardly expect more sophisticated reasoning from my preschooler.
When Milo was three, he asked me on the way home from daycare one day, “Is the Army bad?”
After pausing a moment to weigh the many horrific war-related stories I had just heard on the radio against a petition I had signed that morning urging the U.S. military to intervene in the Sudan, I responded with a tentative, “No.”
“Papa said it is,” Milo replied, alerting me to the fact that I’d been set up with a trick question.
“Well the army sometimes does bad things [invade countries under false pretenses] and sometimes does good things [prevent genocide],” I said. Peacekeeping good, warmongering bad. “And some people in the army do good things, and some do bad things. And sometimes people in the army do bad things because they have no choice because bad people told them to do it.”
At this point I had sufficiently confused him (and myself) to change the subject, but the question lingers five years later. When Milo asks which side of a particular war were the bad guys, I explain to him that each side believes itself to be in the right and the other side to be in the wrong. Even in wars generally considered to be justified—such as the Civil War or World War II—unspeakable atrocities were committed by both sides, and innocents on both sides were slaughtered.
Of course this is much more than I wanted to lay on a three-year-old, and even now, at eight, he seems too young and innocent to comprehend the true human cost of war. What I believe, and what I try to get across to Milo, is that the bad guys in war are generally the guys who run the government—on both sides. The people in power in one country want something from the people in power in another country, but the people with no power at all—the civilians in the line of fire, the enlisted and conscripted men and women—are forced to fight the war, suffer death, injury or a lifetime of psychological trauma, often for reasons they are not privy to, and for a gain they will never experience personally. I realized I had perhaps gone too far in blurring the distinction between good and bad when I overheard him telling his brothers that the Americans are the bad guys during this particular war, and then again later, when he asked me to make him a German World War II uniform.
* * *
Milo is not a violent child. He has not struck anyone (other than his brothers) since he outgrew the impulsive toddler years. While I can’t say he wouldn’t hurt a fly (he chases after any fly that enters the house with a flyswatter in hopes of earning ten cents from his father), he protests loudly if I squash an ant (“how would you feel if a big giant stomped on you?”) or flush a tick down the toilet (“Just let it go outside, Mom! Everything has a right to live.”). When he plays war, he assures me that he doesn’t like real war, just pretend war (including his favorite game with his friend, “Kid War,” in which kids fight the Nazis. Just the phrase brings sickening images of child soldiers in Burma or Sierra Leone to my mind).
I’ve had to try—not always successfully—to balance my desire to shelter my son from all of the horrors in the world, and a competing desire to convince him that war is not glamorous. After his request for the Nazi uniform, I subjected him to a two-minute synopsis of the Holocaust that left him burrowed in the couch cushions, sobbing. Last winter, our neighbor lent Milo a series of videos called Dog Fights, documentary footage and computer-generated reenactments of air battles during World War II. The narrator spoke blandly about American planes being “lost” or “taking” Japanese planes. There was no clear connection between each lost or taken plane and the deaths of the young men flying those planes. The books he was reading on World War I also lacked a human element, reciting facts and events as if they had no impact on real people. Looking back at the history books from my own school years, I recall very little compassion and value of human life; I want more than this for my son.
Tired of being asked questions on every element of a soldier’s life, I suggested that Milo write a letter to my dad, who served in the Army in the late 1960s. He was stationed in Germany where he worked as a radio systems operator. When offered big incentives to go to Vietnam, he declined. Milo wrote, “Dear Grandpoppy, I would like to know about your Military training & Tactics. And what did you have to put in the pockets on your uniform? What kinds of food did you have in your M.R.E.’s (Meal Ready to Eat)? Did you have fun in your training? What colors did you wear for camouflage? What rank in the Army were you going to be? Love, Milo.”
My father wrote back, telling him that during training he could only carry his ID card, a notebook and pencil in his pockets, but later on he could carry anything he wanted. Instead of MRE’s, they had “C” rations, canned food that was very heavy and they could only fit two days’ worth in their packs. They didn’t wear camouflage but put small branches and twigs into nets on their helmets. “Some other parts of the training,” he wrote, “were learning to shoot rifles and machine guns which was a lot of fun.”
My dad assures me that all boys play army—himself included, inspired by John Wayne movies—and, despite having no interest in hunting, as a child he had BB guns, .22’s, a .30-30 rifle and a shotgun. Even my husband, Curry, who drives a Volvo plastered with anti-war bumper stickers, claims he was just like Milo when he was a kid—smart, focused, and dressed in full camouflage, toting all manner of toy guns.
* * *
This spring Milo picked up several brochures from the nearby Army recruiting center from a display at a local pizza place. He squirreled the brochures away in the playhouse, where he would lie on the bench for hours reading and memorizing the slogans and statements. I tried to leave him in peace, but one day I spirited the brochures away to the bottom of the recycling bin.
Unfortunately, I can’t spirit away his obsession as easily as a few brochures. Last week, Milo came home from a few days spent with his great aunt wearing a black hat with the gold letters “Go Army” emblazoned on it. “Where’d you get that hat?” I asked casually.
“At the Army recruiting store. It’s next to the Big K-Mart,” Milo said. “They had Army, Marine Corps [he pronounced it “corpse”], Navy and Air Force. We only got to Army and Marines.” While this aunt is known for overstepping boundaries—Milo also came home with a haircut and a book of Bible stories—I’m sure Milo saw the Army sign at the strip mall and coaxed her into taking him. The hat was just part of a pile of military swag—backpack, T-shirt, mouse pad, DVD, bracelet, lanyard, water bottle, booklets and brochures—that the recruiters gave to my eight-year-old son. He had also seen part of The Bridge on the River Kwai at her house and came home whistling the tune the British prisoners of war whistled in the movie (better known to me as the tune to “Comet, it makes your face turn green!”) and has been whistling it ever since.
Curry has always been much more relaxed about the whole gun play thing than I am and even bought Milo his first “Junior G.I.” camouflage outfit for Christmas when he was five. But that night at dinner, disgusted with the promotional items, Curry said to Milo, “I don’t want people talking my son into going to some war where he’s going to get killed.” Milo’s face did that thing he does when he wants to avoid crying—his lips pressed together as his chin pulled down, tugging at the skin under his eyes.
Of course, chances are that in a matter of months, Milo’s military fascination will have gone the way of his other interests. He doesn’t give tractors a second glance anymore, his Pokemon cards are gathering dust in his closet, he deposited his crisp, highly valued fifty dollar bill into his bank account, and his extensive gem and mineral collection has been evicted from his lock box in favor of his military accoutrements. My brother is convinced that by high school Milo will have a ponytail like his dad and wear tie-dyed shirts and Birkenstocks. I’m not so sure. He’s got enough Alex P. Keaton in him to head in the opposite direction of his organic gardening, solar-home parents. Whether that direction points toward investment banker, diamond miner, or Navy Seal remains to be seen.
* * *
Today, we are at a birthday party at our friends’ house. A pack of kids runs wild on the lawn between the farmhouse where my friend’s in-laws live and the barn where our friends reside while they build their own house—a structure they will mold by hand from earth and timbers—across the road. Most of the guests are families that home school with our friends, some of whom I knew from La Leche League when Milo was a baby but lost touch with when I went back to work. Milo is dressed in his requisite camouflage shorts and Go Army hat. I hope the leopard frog T-shirt he’s wearing, from a local company that prints nature scenes with soy inks on unbleached cotton shirts, redeems me a little bit.
I encourage Milo to go play with the other kids—girls in hand-me-down party dresses and boys he hasn’t seen since he was a nursling—but he is more interested in a skinny guy with a Mohawk who is describing various elements of military-style physical training. Although he is about the right age, I don’t think he is actually in the military, and I wish he would go away. Milo sits in rapt attention, demonstrating his own version of push-ups and military press with his sinewy arms. Then I notice another boy has joined the audience, also entranced. I feel somewhat relieved that it’s not just my son, and I stop paying attention to what the guy is saying.
After a while I see Milo run off with the other boys to kick a ball around the yard and disappear into the barn. For a moment I see him for who he really is, not Private Milo, but an eight-year-old boy.
For now I have made an uneasy truce with Milo’s military fascination. I still die a little inside when I envision him marching off to war, but secretly swell with pride when he builds a tank out of cardboard or sews his own army pouches. When it comes time to sign his selective service card ten years from now, I’m sure Milo will have gone through a dozen other obsessions and I still will not have fully made peace with the thought of the Army taking my boy away.
Author’s Note: I can’t decide if my role as Milo’s parent is to support him in becoming his authentic self or to guide him in the direction I want him to go. My instinct tells me it’s the former, but when that authentic self makes me uncomfortable, I’m less confident in my conviction. I’m still not sure if in acquiescing to Milo’s military passion I am enabling him to be his true self, or if I have turned my back on my own values. Right now I try to remain neutral on his military interest, while at the same time exposing him to the kinds of activities I’d like to see him pursue: art, nature, science, literature. Shamefully, I sometimes use his interest to my advantage; when he fights with his brothers over their armrests in the car, I’ll say “Soldiers don’t need armrests; they’re tough,” or if he complains that the pool is cold, “Do you think Marines care how cold the water is?” I can barely believe what comes out of my mouth.
Andrea Lani lives in Whitefield, Maine, with her husband and three sons. Her writing has appeared in Literary Mama, vox poetica, and The Motherhood Muse. She produces the print zine Gemini and blogs at remainsofday.blogspot.com.
Brain, Child (Spring 2010)