Boys’ attraction to soldiers, guns and war

By Jane Flanagan

Not too long ago, I actually felt removed from Iraq. But after this past month’s devastating deaths and horrific injuries, I no longer enjoy that distance. The fact that I ever did, of course, is absurd.

For as a mother, I know that if I had a son there, I never would have felt removed. I would have felt as though I was there. I’d have wanted to be there. And these soldiers are SOMEONE’s children.

Just being the mother of a member of the next generation of potential draftees scares me. Yet, I bet if you asked him, my son would say he wants to be a soldier. Because Rusty, 5, likes to shoot bad guys.

One morning we were in the kitchen. He was holding an arts and crafts project: two pieces of wood tied together with yarn. Whatever it was supposed to be, to him it was a bow and arrow.

“Where are the bad guys, Mom? I’ll shoot ‘em,” he said.

Then he asked me if I preferred he used a gun, instead.

I try to limit the militaristic imagery he absorbs, but it is tough. He really wants to know this stuff. Already he’s soaking up lingo from historical conflicts.

This weekend Rusty was sitting in the kitchen on top of an empty tinker toy box aiming his “musket” which he constructed out of its contents. The other morning he told me his “B-17,” a World War II vintage plane was bombing a Japanese “Zero.”

I can see that boys everywhere are similarly captivated. At birthday parties if someone is making balloon art, it’s guns and swords the boys want. As the only girl in a family of boys, I remember many weekend mornings where the living room was transformed into a battlefront of miniature soldiers posted at warring forts.

Now viewing these tendencies from a parental perspective, it’s clear to me how innate they are. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing.

As a mother who was here in Lower Manhattan on 9/11 with my then three-year-old, I will be forever grateful to our volunteer military forces. I remember spending that sleepless night, comforted by the sound of their planes patrolling. Planes manned, no doubt, by former young boys with plastic pistols.

Later, when these soldiers invaded Afghanistan and routed the Taliban, I developed a bone-deep gratitude that will never leave me.

But later still, I began wondering about the fanatical young men following Osama bin Laden. Those frustrated, angry 20 and 30-something-year-olds were, no doubt, once boys with toy guns and bows and arrows of their own.

The other day, Rusty and I were walking to school. Usually he flies a plastic plane he calls an F-15. But this particular morning he’d left the plane at home, so he asked for my spare key instead. He said it would be the ignition key to his fighter jet.

“Mom, tell me if the bad guys are coming,” he said.

I complied, causing him to run ahead waving the key up high. We continued this game for blocks. At one point his attention was diverted and he started walking slowly. Wishing to speed him up, I repeated, “The bad guys are coming.”

Suddenly he ran and flung his head into me, burying it.

Startled, I asked him what was wrong.

“You scared me,” he said.


“I thought the real bad guys were coming,” he said.

By the time we got to school he’d forgotten all about being upset. Smiling, he sat down on the rug and started playing with Lego’s.

It got me thinking about those suicidal young men behind bin Laden. I wondered what frightening things faced them as boys. Surely there were many and I’ll bet they didn’t go away when they buried their heads against their mothers.


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