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War Games in Korea: Good Guys and Bad Guys

Allied Solider: A good guy to me.

This morning North Korea fired shells at a South Korean island killing soldiers and civilians and sparking fears of escalating military action between the two countries.  As John wrote, as parents, we learn about tensions around the world that might turn into war and we feel powerless.

To my kids, though, military action means pictures in the newspaper. When they see a picture of soldiers fighting each other, or standing over (sometimes dead) civilians, they always ask the same question: Are those good guys or bad guys?  I usually give them some version of the same answer: That depends.

You could say I should just decide who’s right and who’s wrong and not answer my kids from my perch on the fence of bleeding hearts, and if you said that you’d have a point. But while I’m not a pacifist, I can’t get myself off that fence.  As an adult I can look at military action and decide that one side is fighting for justice.  I can decide that the other side is bad, even evil. I can also acknowledge that the young men and women actually doing the fighting aren’t necessarily bad guys and that civilians and soldier both can be pawns of governments and military leaders.

But four, five, six-year-olds, they can’t understand any of that. They need their world to be black and white.  They’re obsessed with good guys and bad guys. Super heroes are good guys, villains are bad guys.  They play at shooting each other: “Die Bad Guy!!” And rescuing each other: “Don’t Panic!  Here I come! I’m a Good Guy!” And they all have guns. Girls, boys, good guys, bad guys, all of them.

Which is to say I know when my kids point to a picture of a soldier fighting, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Korea, in Pakistan, in any number of places around the world, and ask if that’s a good guy or a bad guy I can say “He’s on our side, he’s a good guy.” And if there’s a follow up question from one of them like, “So, that guy, he’s a bad guy?”  I won’t be able to help myself.  I’ll say, “It depends. For his side, he’s a good guy and we’re the bad guys.” They won’t understand, and that’s my point.

I want them to be confused about war.

I want them to start to see that when it comes to the real live world and real live soldiers there’s rarely a situation where everything is black and white, and guys are either good  or bad. War is mired in shades of grey and even the noblest causes, causes for which I myself would lay down my life, can mean violence against the innocent, death for those who are too young and, at times, excesses in the name of what’s good.  If it were just about good guys and bad guys, it’d be a whole lot simpler.

What do you think? How do you answer your kids when they ask if soldiers are good guys or bad guys?

photo credit:Michal Maňas.

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