Explaining War To A Child

This past week we celebrated Yom Yerushalayim. It is an important day to me as it is to so many others so I did what many do and spent a some time considering the import of the day and why I love Jerusalem.

I love that city if a fiery passion that was forged from personal experience, religious/cultural connections and a gut feeling that it is another home. When I wander Jerusalem it is not as a tourist, but as something more. That is a topic for a different time.

My son’s school covers both secular and religious studies so I wasn’t surprised when he came home to talk about Yom Yerushalayim. I decided to share the broadcast of the reunification with him as I thought that I would use it as a springboard for further discussion. Initially I was a little hesitant to do so, but that is in part because it makes me choke up a little and I didn’t want to make this a heavy discussion.

But due to a convergence of events and the broadcast of the tape the conversation took a turn. My son asked me about how the Old City was lost and how it was regained. This led to a brief conversation about military service and who has done it and this is where life through me a curveball.

One of my son’s grandfathers is currently attending the 40th reunion of his units return from Vietnam. The smart little boy made the connection quickly and wanted to know what happened in the army and why his grandfather had to go. He also quizzed me on what all of his other grandfather’s did as well and thus began the conversation about what a war is and what happens during a war.

It was a challenge because I didn’t want to give him any more information than he needs. He wanted to know why his grandfathers went and what would have happened to them if they refused. So I tried to explain what the draft was and why you might go to prison if you don’t serve.

Then he quizzed me about what happens when bombs explode on people and asked what they do to fix them. In short order I found myself trying to explain why one grandfather was in combat and the other did not face it. I left out the part about the great grandfather who put in a request to serve overseas during WWII and didn’t mention anything about the cousins who were wounded.

Somehow this conversation kept meandering all over the place and I found myself trying to avoid having to explain the difference between a popular war and one that wasn’t.

We hit the question about why I didn’t go to war. I told him that I was a little too young to worry about Vietnam and that I didn’t have to go to the first Gulf War. I didn’t tell him about how many friends and acquaintances I saw go, but I remember the goodbye parties far too well.

I didn’t tell him about the guys at the gym who have rotated back stateside after tours in Iraq. I didn’t tell him how lucky he is to have a grandfather who has adjusted to a normal life. Now the truth is that I don’t know how long or how hard it was for him, but I do know that the boys I see are not right.

They have a look in their eyes that makes it clear that they have seen things that scarred them.

This is not an antiwar post. Sometimes you have to fight, but again that is a separate post.

Really what this post is about is the challenge of trying to explain to a child that people kill and maim others because that is part of how you win a war. It is not easy to answer those questions without getting too descriptive, at least not when you are asked as many follow up questions as my son asks.

It is not easy to lie to him when he asks if grandpa ever killed anyone, but I did. He is too young to hear those kind of things and when the time comes I’ll revisit the conversation.

But the lad is observant and pays very close attention to everything around him. When he asked me if I would kill someone in a war all I did was answer that I would do what I had to do to come back home safely. The reality is that I don’t really know what I would do, but I expect that my answer is probably what would happen.

In a different life I taught CPR and first aid and I saw gunshot victims. I have seen men and boys who were stabbed and I have come across a couple of car accidents in which the bodies hadn’t been removed.

I remember those moments well enough to know that I can’t really guess how the people who underwent combat feel, but at the same time I know what a broken body looks like. So I guess that this is part of why I take this conversation so seriously.

And the fact that we have been at war for most of his short life is not lost on me. I am grateful to our veterans. They have my sincere thanks.

But I’ll tell you, this conversation with my son really was challenging.

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  1. Jack's Shack May 30, 2006 at 2:03 am

    Hi WBM,

    Thanks. I can see your point. It certainly is one of those distinctions between Israel and America.


    If there is one thing that I learn from being a father it is that I am still learning.



  2. Stephen (aka Q) May 29, 2006 at 4:20 pm

    Well done, Jack.

  3. seawitch May 29, 2006 at 12:10 pm

    Conversations with your children can be challenging at times. I was fortunate that the discussion about war didn’t come up until 9-11 and my son was 14. It’s a little easier when your child has a stronger grasp of right and wrong. He asked the question about his grandfather and if he had to kill anyone during Vietnam. I honestly didn’t know. My dad discussed very little of what it was like over there. He was a Seabee and he did see many of friends killed.

    I haven’t discussed with my son how much his grandfather had changed when he came back from Vietnam. Even after 30 years those wounds are still fresh to me.

    But my son knows that sometimes war has to be waged to ensure that present and future generations can live in liberty and that things guaranteed by our Constitution are worth fighting for.

  4. westbankmama May 29, 2006 at 8:22 am

    Another great post Jack. In a way this type of conversation is easier in Israel – because even little kids here know about terrorism and kassam rockets, and see soldiers all of the time. They know that the soldiers are there to protect them as best they can. In America you don’t feel that – so the uglier aspects of war are discussed but not the necessity for it.

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