How do you teach children about war? In all cases a herculean task, I think that American parents have it both harder and easier than so many other cultures. Easier, because whichever path we choose, it’s voluntary for us to teach and it’s optional for children to learn. Parents who raise children in countries where war is an everyday reality don’t have this option. Their children wake every morning in the middle of something incomprehensible and it is the parent’s duty to explain, to help, to make it tenable. Harder because American kids are influenced by so many sources both outside and inside of the home–thousands of television channels that play 24 hours a day, mobile devices, teachers, friends, and family–it’s hard for youths to separate the informational wheat from the chaff especially when its coming at them at the speed of a superhighway–heck, it’s hard for most adults! It would be insurmountable for parents to try to control all of the information that their children receive. And should we want to?
We are a military family. Not because of a generations’ old tradition, but because my husband chose to serve–both as a law enforcement officer and as a member of the Armed Forces. This means that the food that my children eat and the shelter and freedoms that they enjoy are the direct fruits of a serviceman’s labors. This is a concept that they can understand. If you are a follower, you have read about my struggles the past year as my children are growing into their political leanings and starting to have opinions about the turmoil in the world around them. If you are new, try here, here or here.
We’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t get to pick how our kids feel about war, but we can give them the best information in a way that they can maybe understand enough about the humanity of war to form intelligent opinions rather than emotional ones driven by politics or ratings. And we can show them the real nature of TRUTH–that it is like a diamond–brilliant, complicated and multi-faceted. You can shine a light on one side of the truth and see a completely different reflection if the light is shined just a millimeter to the left or to the right. And, to shine a light on all the facets, all the time is blinding and hard to look at. But in a beautiful way.
We were together on the beaches of Normandy, seeing first hand how scary and suicidal the mission was, how brave isn’t a big enough word. The landscape of the cliffs in contrast with the still standing bunkers is awe inspiring. You can read the numbers on a website or see the dead in a Hollywood movie, but when you stand among the gravestones and read the ages of the soldiers, you can’t un-know the fear and pain that they felt. It changes you.
We walked the battlegrounds of Gettysburg together and stood on the battle lines of the Confederacy and the Union–feet apart. We could almost smell the stench of death, gunpowder, blood and human waste that filled the muddy landscape and changed the soil composition to the point where it still grows vegetation different from the rest of the countryside. Two brothers. Their father. We looked into each others’ eyes and we knew–that civil war takes on a life of it’s own. Simplifying it, as we had all their lives, as a war against slavery was somehow not enough. It made us obsessed with the facts. The politics. The motivations of the parties involved.
We’ve walked the Freedom Trail together and studied the politics that caused the Revolutionary War. We’ve discussed over lobster tails in Boston whether our current political climate is what our forefathers had in mind. We stood in Constitution Hall to let it seep in. To let the power and gumption of those men fortify us against modern government’s finger pointing and name calling and to encourage our children to find THEIR way to independence– away from party lines, away from spoonfed news, and away from porkbarrel political legacies.
We walked the Berlin Wall and talked about what happened. How did we let Russia build a wall to forcefully create a barrier behind which freedom was taken overnight? How did we watch it happen and sit idly by? Even I, having read about it and watched it on the news as a child, didn’t understand what a barrier it was to basic human freedom. Not just the wall, but the guard towers and the bombs, shootings and guerrilla tactics taken against the citizens of East Berlin while we watched from three feet away for nearly thirty years. The wall showed us how much a little compromise in the wrong hands could cost the world. And it showed the power of human desire for freedom.
We’ve walked the hills where the Battle of the Bulge played out. Having grown up in an America where Nazis were the automatic “bad guy” in every book, movie or TV show, it never occurred to us to analyze the motivations of the German citizens in relation to the rise of the Nazi Party’s power. The museum tells about the Second World War from the perspective of a German Soldier, two Belgian citizens–one who joined the resistance and one who didn’t, and an American Airborne Ranger. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t change our minds about the “bad guy” part, but those ordinary people had always been a pebble in our shoe. How could humans sit in their houses knowing that their neighbors were being exterminated and not do anything? How could they join? Why couldn’t they resist? Now we know. Seeing the voting statistics in the years leading up to Nazi power on maps that bore a striking resemblance to the way we show presidential election results? Seeing the division between party lines while political middle ground dissolved leaving only two extremes shouting blame at the wind until the hatred was so divisive that the Nazi Party took control? Weighty. The tragedy of the death and destruction to a place so picturesque and unprovoking led us to talk together about what could have been done to prevent the Second World War and how life might be different.
We have stood together at the site of the former twin towers in downtown New York City. The most poignant and palpably heart wrenching memorial we’ve ever seen, each site a black abyss of screaming sound and roaring silence. A reminder of how, in times of tragedy, we have the potential to act together, to grieve together and to come together as a nation. A reminder of our love for each other and our common belief in one thing across party lines–the American Way of Life.
Wanting my children to understand the world in this way is the difference between wanting to have a child and holding your child for the first time. Wanting something and knowing, abstractly, that it will require work and commitment is one thing, but actually placing it on your chest is another kind of responsibility altogether. Before these trips, I fielded questions like, “can I buy an app today?” and “Do you think they’ll ever make another Austin Powers movie?” Now, I’m just as apt to talk about whether Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine bears a striking resemblance to Germany’s “absorption” of Austria and whether the signing of the Iran Nuclear Deal is similar to Greece’s humiliating crawfishing themselves into the economic deal they had to sign with Europe. I have to NOT flinch when my children have a political opinion that is different from mine and ASK them how their journey pointed them there. It makes me long for the easy days of potty training or teaching them table manners–when I’m tired or uneducated about something, I yearn for the days when everything that I had to teach them was black and white, not left or right.
So, how do we teach our children about war? We make them walk the paths of the fallen and learn the choices that leaders had to make. We force them to think about whether they they would make the same decisions or have the courage and conviction to walk the same path. And then we eat. And laugh. And play poker.
And they STILL wonder about Austin Powers.