“Go and teach Jeremy how to play with G.I. Joes,” I remember a relative saying to one of my older cousins when I was six. I had just received my first G.I. Joe action figure and I was already well versed in the world of Star Wars toys, although the small guns that came with them weren’t allowed in my pacifist home. My cousin introduced me to the soldier leader toy, “Duke,” and I was hooked—like any child would be. There is something life-altering for a young boy when he holds his first toy soldier and learns to maneuver, shoot, and maim (although all fans of similar toys and their t.v.-show related franchises know that somehow cartoons never actually suffer).
I knew my father would object because we had a strict “no guns” policy when it came to toys; a decade earlier he had stood up against the Vietnam war as a conscientious objector after being first in the draft, and was handed his papers to be shipped off to war. He refused service before a judge, married, and lived, working for the state to stave off his service. I was born a few years later. In my adulthood I also chose nonviolence as a philosophy, borrowing from Tolstoy, Thoreau, Ghandi, Dr. King, and a host of heroes and heroines who simply said and say no to all violence. As a high school teacher, however, I am often challenged with the reality that my students—who I admire, cherish, and would save from death if I could—join the Armed Forces and are called to violence across the world.
For my generation there has been no great war—men and women my age escaped a large statist calamity, only to have the slightly next generation suffer at the hands of lawyers-turned-statesmen who ushered us into more than a decade of “real” war in the Middle East. But high school kids—especially those who live in the inner-city where I teach—are often prime real estate for the picking for an all-volunteer army that always needs soldiers.