The Babe


Across the street in Seward Park, boys came to play baseball. Some were large enough to call "men," but were called "big guys," since real men did not play softball. And once a week from September to June, weather permitting, and usually not long after breakfast, there emerged the most transcendent of sights, enfilading through the brick arches from the North into the Park, khaki-clad soldiers by the hundreds, neatly maneuvering as they emerged into platoons and companies, shouldering rifles and hoisting flags, who proceeded then to march about the Park to barks of command, and who could from time to time come together into an orderly mass, ground their rifles all at once, and stand stock still.

He was called for at the first sight of them, "Here come the soldiers, Babe!" and would watch with unflagging attention as the proceedings unfolded. At first the scene was surreal, like the first cuckoo clock he ever saw, but then he was instructed and came to understand that big boys who went to Lane Technical High School on Division Street two blocks North belonged to the Reserve Officers Training Corps and were learning to be soldiers, among other things.

Beginning at two years of age, he knew of soldiers and warfare, that men fought men, organized in large groups, with guns, ships, and even airplanes. Everyone in the world, even the nicest among them, were quite ready to inform him of this state of affairs, and by the tone of their voice he could appreciate that large and important issues were at stake, the good being bound up in good guys, the bad in bad guys. Before he could tote even the tiniest gun he could wage a war on drawing boards, just like generals. Before he could write, his tightly gripped colored crayons were impressing upon rough paper gorgeous panoramas of battle.

The Dad, who had not been a soldier and disapproved of the military life, nevertheless did not depreciate the troops. His own father had for twelve years been a soldier, a valorous sergeant in the end, before he had started up a smithy in his village. The incubus for the Babe's militarism came from the most charming and seemingly innocuous source, old Mrs. Villiers next door. To her his parents were delighted to send him, for from her exuded the grandmotherly presence sans pareille. She coddled him, guarded him, fed him lumps of sugar, and told him of her life as a child.

She read little but possessed a book half his size. She would take him upon her lap, open up the Complete Illustrated History of the Grand Army of the Republic in the War to Preserve the Union, and display it to him, explaining, as she rocked them to and fro in her maple chair.

Here were all the important engagements between the armies of the North and South, described and pictured in lithograph, photograph, lines, and maps, replete with the portraits of the general officers of the War, ordering men about, waving their swords, glaring at the photographer, sitting grandly astride their steeds. The Blue and the Grey marched in long columns stretching to the skyline, they stood and fired their cannon and rifles fiercely at each other, long files of them. The dead lay everywhere about; many wounded stretched up their arms in agony, or appealing for help, or for mercy from the ever-present bayonet. Horses died in exquisite agony, on their knees, rearing up, crashing against artillery carriages. The smoke of battle was never allowed to dim the eye of the artist.

Mrs Villiers' father had fought for the North, which quickly came to be "our side." A bullet had passed through his hand. "Right through?" "Yes." "All the way?" "Yes." And he studied the old lady's hand, then his own little hand, and imagined the neat hole and how much it must have hurt, but he did not quite imagine the jagged hole, the fright, the bloodiness, the danger of sepsis and amputation, nor the hand forever stiff.

Mrs. Villiers was above the battle and did not dwell upon the spilling of blood, the heads rolling after the cannon balls that had knocked them off. The Illustrated History, although it showed the rows of the dead and dying, the men with startled faces falling, and the hospitals with long rows of cots, still could not bring up the full stench and madness of war, nor the million personal tragedies and the sorrows of tens of millions.

The two were in a conspiracy against death, she because she was approaching death, he because he was just beginning to live. He was already the precursor of the Hiroshima mentality, which, let us admit, has always been present, if unable to exercise itself fully, that is, the killing of vast numbers from far away which makes great wars ever the easier to ignite and enjoy. His parents, and American culture generally, in fact suppressed thoughts of death ranging in scope from the slaughterhouses to the roadside accident, and even to the peaceful relapse of lucky old people into final coma.

Mrs. Villiers performed for the Babe the service of the women of all history, to prepare morally and psychologically the young for the battle to the death. Kind, confident, loving, proud, complimentary, grandmotherly Mrs. Villiers, great mother of wars, ultimately slaughterer of men. Unimpeachably patriotic, when the Fourth of July came around the calendar, a great American flag appeared in her household and with little hesitation she let herself be enveloped in it while the Mom took a wonderful picture of her sitting there in her rocking chair dressed up in the Red, White and Blue, a photograph long cherished by the family, it showed her so well, so in character, her finely lined face, large chin and aquiline nose, her bushy iron- gray hair, her benevolent authoritative glance, her stocky body all wrapped up in Old Glory. (Which, the Babe already knew, and had sworn so immediately, "must never touch the ground.")

Thus he was in infancy a militarist, first in heart and mind, then in speech, in crayon and pencil, in play, and in literature. From the age of three he raised armies and slew their myriads at will. They all died fighting. He rarely allowed for the wounded, made small provisions for hospitals, tolerated no accidental death of plagues among the troop, and only occasionally inserted litter-bearers. Horses, tanks, and airplanes were employed in the correct proportions, horses rather more perhaps. Cannon were in full array, and machine-guns took their horrific toll. Basic to all were the infantry battalions.

He had no staff officers, only messengers. Leadership was furnished by captains. The next level of command was the Generalissimo, the tot himself; indeed he was Commander-in-Chief of the armies of both friend and foe, nor was he accountable to politicians or public, but only to History, a special history, dictated by himself of course, whose earlier historical names were of conquerors and generals, Caesar, Washington, Grant, Sherman, and Pershing, men who could never take "no" for an answer.

During these long delightful lullabies of battles across the hall, at which he sometimes fell asleep rocking, he was imprinted with the warfare of regimented masses, using concentrated firepower, and incurring heavy casualties. Thus from the Civil War, the first great modern war, he learned something of what World War I would be like. Hence its details were not surprising when he came to read them in the "comics," the pulp magazines, and the schoolbooks and library, and began to exchange intelligence with his brother and other boys.

The literature of the Revolutionary War was more abundant and full of stories, but generously censored as well. He began to learn it later in time, around the age of six. Here he took on another view of warfare which could not, he appreciated, be readily applied to modern conditions. It was the irregular combat in which the colonials were supposed to excel. First George Washington learned it from the French and frontiersmen, and the Babe thrilled to read of how General Braddock's well-drilled and outfitted British troops were cut to pieces by the French and their Indian allies, and a remnant saved only by Washington's Virginia irregulars.

He regretted that Washington had to become a regular army commander in order to represent the Independent States with a formal army. His favorites were Marion, "The Swamp Fox," and his guerrillas (this word not being used, however) and "The Green Mountain Boys." If he had his way he would have fought the Revolutionary War thus with the doctrines of rural development of Mao, knowing full well the nature and weaknesses of the enemy, the terrain and tactics of the forests and rivers.

His appreciation of strategy preceded then by many years the vogue of partisan warfare in World War II, the Chinese Communists, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara. The tactics of the child of tender age are ascribed to genius when they are expressed by grown men and happen to succeed. (And I am tempted to discourse upon the full range of tactics employed in "Hide-and-Go-Seek.") Unfortunately all of his disquisitions upon the strategy of war were carried in fugitive form on paper or unrecorded voice and have been lost.

Somehow in infancy and in early schoolwork and at the public library, whether by neglect or censorship or ignorance, he passed through the Revolutionary War without much awareness of the interminable politicking of the Continental Congress, the jockeying for place, the preference for retreat and the frequency of defeat, the abundance of Loyal sentiment (loyal to the Crown, that is), the turn- coats, nuisances, resentments, bickering, bribery, terrorism, persecution, brigandage, and most of all the ultimate intervention of well-organized third parties like the French Navy and Army that turned the tide against the British and forced the final surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, and too, the lack of awareness of the English Government of the industrial potential that was breeding in the Yankees and of those grandiose ambitions of the Southern planters, because the English were inclined toward the rich Caribbean Islands that were loyal and servile, and also were fascinated by the "more important" affairs of Europe. Almost nothing of this kind of truth about wars did he chance to learn.

He had an artistic bent. Kate profited from it to get her housework done. "Why don't you sit down here and draw a nice picture?" "Nice" meant a horse, a cow, a house, a church with a steeple. He did so, and was given colored crayons so that his work could be polychromatic. None of it was surreal. He tried hard to color the sun just like it was, its own true yellow as he saw it; he never quite captured the effect, but he regarded such failure as technical, not a relative and subjective problem of perception that had several solutions, nor did anyone analyze his problem for him. Except for his earliest heavy scrawls, his work was conventional and realistic, and for compliment he asked and only received, "It looks just like a real horse!"

His massed battles were more abstract, and in the end were geometrical and statistical, in that sense now surreal. For he impatiently abbreviated the forms of every man, animal, and machine (just as do the primitive and artistically deprived) until they began to resemble the G-2 and G-3 map overlays in an army headquarters, where whole numbers and symbols show how many and what kind of troops hold positions where, and are advancing or retreating in what direction and have suffered how many casualties. The dead lay there by the scores, schematically portrayed, plenty enough to prove how bloody was the battle; a calloused general was he.

Sometimes he emblazoned the sun upon his battle scenes, but he painted more and better suns shining upon cowboys and their cattle herds in desert scenes, and his very best suns were pitched on mountain ridges at sunset, fiery orange with colored clouds steaming from one end of the page to the other, even filling the crevices between mountain peaks.

From time to time his Uncle Charley would appear out of nowhere, of whom it was said, "Charley draws wonderful pictures!" and truly he could portray choo-choo trains and dreadnoughts with depth and force, which the little boy admired and imitated, more abstractedly, less competently. Yes, he could draw flowers: "That boy can draw anything!" These, too, had geometrical forms, nicely placed petals, leaves and stalks. No one ever said, "What is it?", or "Which side is up?", except about those of his abbreviated battle panoramas that contained subtle implicit principles of history, organization, and tactics: for instance, "it is going to be O.K., see, because here are the reinforcements, hiding behind the mountains. You can only see their bayonets sticking out."

His painting and drawing were precocious but unprogressive. His private art practically ended when he entered kindergarten: yet he would continue to be better than the average child in artwork until one day in a seventh grade art class he carved out a repetitive pattern of frogs on linoleum blocks, deriving for once a warm aesthetic pleasure from his lithography. It was dawn and dusk for the artist.

From talk and pictures to drawings, and then to war games in the parlor and on the street. He needed thereafter but a Cause, an Israel, a Lebanon, to propel him into full action. The toy soldiers were introduced to his play as soon as he had spotted their representations in catalogues and discovered them standing in shop windows. He was given the small lead objects, (with a warning not to suck on them), in several forms, at first gorgeous and finely fashioned -- authentic models -- and afterwards of coarse cheap fabrication so as to accommodate the ever-growing requisitions of cannon-fodder.

His arsenal ranged from Roman catapults to French 75's. Sword- wielding Teutons and French machine-gunners mingled with British infantry standing at attention, bayonets fixed. It took some self- deluding to imagine them performing the functions that he demanded of them, kneeling to fire, casting themselves prone to aim and fire, leaping down from their horses to fight afoot. He regretted the technological backwardness of the third of his allied forces that bore swords, spear, and shield, yet had to be pitted against modern fire-power.

He was not altogether consistent, even when he might be, for, loving horsemen, he closed his eyes to the demise of cavalry, and behaved just as fancifully as the real officers who had brought one disaster after another upon themselves in the wars of those days for love of the horse. He insisted that there was a need for them and obtained as many as he could, but, unlike his adult military counterparts, he could force his will upon the scene, as he pitted them in successful heroic charges against machine-guns and point- blank artillery. This chivalric folly was only checked by the high cost of horsemen. He discovered, like many a horse fancier, that horses often broke their legs, but instead of shooting them straight away, he bound the legs with matchsticks splints and recommitted them to battle.

He was given toy engines with spring motors before he had the strength to wind them all the way with their little keys. (He did not like their key affixed, but when they were not he lost them.) He requisitioned cars and engines immediately for the pursuit of battle, without having yet heard of the "Taxicab Army" that had saved Paris in 1915 when the Boche had been close upon it. When electric engines were introduced, he sought them with the avidity of Ibn Saud for the latest in U.S. early-warning systems, and pressed them into military service.

Airplanes were employed as fighters and bombers, whether made of balsam pieces that he put together with glue, or of gaily-colored tin, on which he occasionally cut himself. The bombers dropped blocks -- yes, "block-busters" -- for which they required assisted take- offs; small thrusting hands acted as missile launchers; blocks of all sizes, too, were catapulted from considerable distances, launched blindly from behind a sofa.

It was total war. Even the tiny livestock intended for the creche beneath the Christmas tree were corralled for the Army and driven into freight cars for transportation to the Front: "Nothing is too good for our Boys!" St. Joseph, gentle Father of Christ, was removed by the long arm of the military, leaving only the Holy Mother and Babe (the other one, the pacifist one) to carry on with the meaning of Christmas.

He had many ways of fashioning hills, ravines, foliage and houses. Surprisingly, representations of these were being built to go along with the purchase of train sets, and these might be combined with his home-made multi-purpose works -- pin-cushions, blocks, canned food, etc. He rebuilt his destroyed properties after every battle with the patience of the Picardy farmer.

He expanded the theatre of war. His fleets would cut the waves grimly at the far end of the apartment, in the bath-tub, for instance. He set up garrisons and reserve training stations on window sills, concealed behind draperies, outposts that overlooked the whole scene from the mountainous arms of the couch or the mantelpiece, and assault parties craftily debouched under a folded rug. At this time no more than six, he was younger even than Napoleon when he became obsessed with prosecuting his wars to the bitter end.

The whole war system eventually settled into a war of attrition. Houses fell into disrepair. At critical moments the disabled and walking wounded were committed to battle. He cleared out every crevice of debris, urged every last man into the lines, regardless of rank, to win the battle that would end the war. (The idea of "a war to end all wars" escaped him, though the phrase was still current, slowly acquiring its sneering tone.)

He was even the womb of warriors, making them out of any material at hand -- snippets of cloth, corks, thick nails -- a Hitler Jugend and Heimwehr to replace the natty grenadiers, now corpses, whom his sense of logic and kismet would not let him revive, not just yet. They had to await The Next War, Revanche, for their resurrection. It sometimes relieved him to bring an end to the carnage -- and sometimes he hurried to do so when being called to the outdoors, knowing full well that in the interval between wars, the male population would be replenished, the bombed-out train-yards rebuilt, and the forts reconstructed -- never mind the Unconditional Surrender of the last war.

All of the killing and destruction was accompanied by the buzzing of airplanes, softly screaming shells, and the clacking of moving elements of the train system, and the larger scene was otherwise orderly and calm, if only because its chief disrupter was away at war.

Warfare was a moral business for the Babe. He assigned less troops to the Good side than to the Bad. For, lacking experience, he accepted the claim, put forward by Hollywood and the Common Man, that one American could lick several foreigners, and naturally, although all Americans were not Good, they became so in the course of war.

Furthermore, he believed that a struggle against odds was the best kind of fighting and good in itself. The Good always won, despite being outnumbered. Sometimes they won the climactic battle following several minor defeats. Many times they were reduced to a few exhausted survivors before victory became theirs.

The media had fixed him with this combination of false messages: first, that the "good" triumphs over the "bad" by correlating necessary skills and daring with virtue and right; second, that in the real situations of history, just as in the movies and comic strips, the "bad" forces outnumbered the "good." He would have had to be perversely inquisitive to uncover the fact, for instance, that at Yorktown the Franco-American forces were far greater in numbers and fire-power than the British enemy, and so it had been with the Union forces throughout the Civil War, outnumbering the Confederates. And, too, with the Federal cavalry chasing Geronimo and his Apaches.

Very early, he heard of the Bugle of Roland and of the Alamo and of Thermopylae, where small forces of his heroes held out until the end and were soon thereafter avenged by great Good armies.

Someone might have told him to provide himself with proof of the Good before taking sides. Someone should have counselled him to arm his Good forces with overwhelming numbers, morale, resources, weapons, and training before venturing into battle -- never mind his prejudices in favor of the weak. Someone might even had advised him to stop all this nonsense and go jump rope. But no one did.

Toy trains and war games occupied his mind often when he might have been painting or writing or doing arithmetic or practicing music or playing word games at higher levels. His drawing was often absorbed into the military-industrial complex. Writing was used to transmit messages to himself and to compose signposts for directing traffic. He needed no arithmetic to order his disordering wars, although he could inform an inquirer exactly of the number of the various troops and types of materiel under his command.

He was also poorer in his moral perceptions and leadership qualities than he would have been if cast among other children right away under the supervision and counsel of a wise adult, were such to be found.

Or, what would have been the effect if his lonely play had been focused upon Nature -- dogs, cats, rabbits, flower pots, fish bowls -- or upon Christianity, playing out the life and passion of Jesus, Paul, and Moses?

If, if, if... but we know what he played at. We can tell a little girl's attitudes toward teacher, mother, father, siblings, and strangers, from setting up her play with various dolls. We can also say something about the wars the child is prepared to fight and of his attitudes toward warfare, about why he will begin them, whom he will sacrifice, when he will quit. I think that his military play will reveal how deeply violence and war become ingrained, how much he is prepared to sacrifice of civil life, freedom, property, and liberty in order to pursue his war.

Obviously the Babe was enjoying the destruction of lives and property in some given sense of the Good, confident of social approval of what he was doing; he was learning to displace his aggressions upon an enemy and perhaps had fewer problems with members of his family and with schoolmates and with his conscious self because he did so. And he probably did teach himself and incorporate the conflicting and congruent but diverse signals coming from the press and film and school just as I have shown. This is no mean pragmatic to achieve.

Can you imagine what might have been done? There should have been a warning by the Secretary of State of the U.S.A. on every box of toy soldiers, saying:


I still cannot let the matter go. This "sweet little boy" was on his way to becoming a world menace and no one even observed the fact except to praise the neat lines of troops on paper or the floor, who were about to be machine-gunned. Instead, his elders respected the Author at Work; they hesitated to disrupt or tread upon his little world of tracks, cars, wires, and deployments of men and materiel, a world integrated and integral, with a Mind in Command.

His Mother commented upon his powers of concentration with respect and concern. "That boy," she said to little Eddy, "thinks so much, his head is going to explode!" Eddie was deeply impressed at the prospect. Incidentally, Bro Bus was not obsessed with soldiers, nor were most of the Babe's acquaintances.

The years passed and, when the time came that the Babe read the lugubrious poem, "Little Boy Blue," although he had dispersed his troops by then, his eyes would dim with tears at the image of the staunch toy soldiers in dress uniform, standing firm long after their general had passed away. As when General Douglas MacArthur spoke two decades later to the Joint Session of the Congress that was convened to hear his parting words, concluding with the words of the maudlin song: "Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away." Whereupon the Nation's leaders were hushed, with many a watering eye for the latest reenactment of "Little Boy Blue."