War Games

by Michael Rossman

            Lorca, Jesse, and Dana are playing war, running around the house. The boys have been at it for months now, in between Batman and Superman and general crime-fighting, their study of conflict escalating to international dimensions as they grow to be five, six, seven. And I don't intervene, though my blood chills each time I overhear their gleeful massacre of battalions. For how can I stop them, except by terrifying them? So mostly all I say, when they invite me in, is that I myself don't care for war at all, for people maimed and dead, and please don't point that gun at me.

            But today is different. I'm in my room typing, ignoring their volleys, when I hear Karen suggest that someone's going to get picked on if they play teams, two against one. "It's okay, we're all on the same team," they tell her, "we're the Viet-uh-man-ees," mangling the word solemnly. She leaves, and I keep listening as they talk up their situation. They're in a valley, they're surrounded, they're fighting against the Americans, they're setting traps, digging holes and putting sharp bamboo at the bottom and covering them with leaves, for Americans and somehow also Viet-uh-man-ees to fall into, North ones, or is it South? Sure, says Jesse, who is wise at seven, it's like Angola, the Americans are on the side of the North Angolans and the Russians are on another side, and then there's the good side, the one we're on. "But we're Americans too!" says Dana. "Not now we aren't!" the others tell him.

            I can't stand it any longer, I come into the living room to ask Jesse who's been telling him about Angola. His grandmother, it turns out, a mild decent woman I had never suspected of politics. "And is it the North or the South Viet-uh-man-ese, our side?" I tell the boys it's the North they mean, and ask if they know why they're digging tiger-traps for men. They don't, they want to know. For them now technology is more immediate than politics, but it is politics as well, as I tell them how one side had all the fancy guns, the magic eyes that saw through night and planes to rain the liquid fire, and how the other side did with what it could, with shovel and pocket-knife at times. "And won!" they chorus, with astonished pride.

            "Would you like to see a picture, a poster from when you were born?" They follow me to the spare room. From under the bed I fish the great dusty portfolio of political art from the sixties, salvaged from meetings and telephone poles, and pull one poster out. Lorca and Jesse recognize it, for a copy still hangs in the Sierra ranch where we sometimes go. It is a splendid silkscreen, the image compact, almost surreal. In a rich wash of colors we see the outlines and textures of old pagodas, the cultivated rice. These are the ground and silhouette of hills, upon which three sweet-hatted figures stand at rest in work; but the color changes lick up past the horizon, engulfing them and all in red flames; while overhead, filling half of heaven, the great black wings of a white-headed bird hang heavy with no sound.

            I don't need to tell them much. They recognize the American eagle, know about the arrows he usually carries, and see his empty claws; they have crouched helpless with Sinbad as the great Roc took flight, have aimed broomsticks at planes, know what napalm is. They are learning to read, they puzzle out the words: BRING THE MONSTER DOWN / END THE AIR WAR.

            All I can do is to help them get it straight. I dig from the portfolio the crude flag, stitched red and blue panels with a hastily silk-screened yellow star, the relic of some late-sixties street confrontation, and look for a simple way to explain about the Vietcong and the PRG. But already they are telling me: there was a president, he did mean things and the people didn't like him, the Viet-uh-man-ees people were good only he made them fight against the Cong, the Americans kept him in guns. Close enough, for five-to-seven years; they haven't got the politics of the Round Table down any better yet. This year's agenda is the American Revolution, the enigma of the eagle being both dream and nightmare, some further steps in sorting it out. When we come to our sacred documents they may learn how the Vietnamese honored them in theirs; and we will talk again about how it is possible to be an American and still fight against what Americans do.

            Yet they know so much already. Rightly or wrongly, the legend of Vietnam is planted in their mythology, with the same simple contours of feeling that were formed in the myth of our lives and live in us still, and spill out to these children from almost every adult who cares for them, at odd and unpredictable times -- not as any sort of deliberate or coordinated indoctrination, but as the almost reluctant confession of the passions that have moved our lives.

            As I'm putting the portfolio away Dana asks me, "Did you fight in the war?" "In a way," I say, "though I wasn't in the army. I fought at home." "You fought with words," says Lorca, as I fear and long for the day when he will read them. "Yes, I fought with words, and some with my body too," I say, glad that he has not asked me to explain yet, though I have told him already about why I went to jail. It is not time yet to tell him of the pictures of napalmed children blazed into my heart years before his birth, that drove me into the streets; or of how often they blurred my eyes as I bathed his small unscarred form while air war raged. It doesn't seem right just now to sing him again the story of Johnny, home from battle without an arm or a leg, or the dream that we shall study war no more. All I can say, as the boys run back to their play, is, "I do think any kind of war's a wrong thing. But sometimes there's no choice, sometimes you have to fight to keep alive, or to be free. I wish it weren't that way."

            Still the reasonable parent, patient, explaining, right to the end. And so I remain, realizing dimly what I have just done, as the war resumes and Karen comes in as reasonable parent to remind me to warn them that voicing a foreign allegiance on the public school-grounds may earn them lumps even in Berkeley. Only she doesn't get to say it quite yet, for I fall on her neck, crying and crying, and cannot for the moment tell her why.



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