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Little boys’ love of war, The FT Weekend

‘Having a real war going on now, with British soldiers, is a treat.’

“It was good about that bomb in Iraq, wasn’t it Daddy?” said my five-year-old son Benedict brightly. Once again, I explained to him that war was very sad. Once again, he wandered off, disappointed. Puzzled too. He knows his grandpa fought in North Africa and Italy in the Second World War and he knows that this was admirable and brave.

Benedict is an affectionate, thoughtful boy but to him all war is good: Vikings against knights (his little Playmobil figures wielding lances with disconcerting smiles); cowboys against Indians; British against Germans. Having a real war going on now, with British soldiers, is a treat. He studies pictures of soldiers in newspapers and soaks in Iraq news from the radio, relaying it conversationally: “The Queen’s prince joined the army today. He might have to go and fight in Iraq.”

Why do boys like war? And should it be a worry? I ask one of Benedict’s teachers, Lee Murphy, a 16-year primary school veteran. He tells me that the Second World War is taught to Year 6 children (10-11 year olds) but from the perspective of its impact on everyday life, not the battles. Nevertheless, boys’ fascination with fighting finds an outlet. “Say they’ve got a history book and they’re allowed to design the front cover. Then you will find the Messerschmitt there, a tank here and there, a couple of Hitlers and a Churchill. It’s difficult at a school like this, a Catholic school, because our whole emphasis is on peace.”

Younger, Reception Class boys like Benedict are no different. When they play with Lego, says Murphy, “they will make little models, ‘This is my gun!’ So they can go ‘Pkew! Pkew!’ with their friends. Even a piece of paper, if it is long enough, they will pretend is a sword.” Murphy doesn’t think boys are more aggressive than girls, they just express it differently – girls through whispers, boys through wrestling.

Harry Pearson’s entertaining new memoir, Achtung Schweinehund! A Boy’s Own Story of Imaginary Combat, describes his own boyhood war mania. He hung on radio news then, just like Benedict today. “I remember during the Arab-Israeli War in ’67 being disappointed Britain wasn’t involved. I was hugely let down. And the fact that we weren’t in Vietnam either,” he says.

Pearson sees boys’ love of war partly as a love of destruction and he cites the study of boys’ behaviour by Erik Erikson, the eminent Danish psychologist. “He noticed they built piles of bricks and then they knocked them over. And watching them fall, there was this great glee in their eyes. Erikson said, ‘the contemplation of ruins is a masculine speciality.’ War seems to offer that destruction on a grand scale.”

Pearson thinks loving war could be an expression of little boys wanting to be great big boys. Growing up in the 1960s, “the Second World War was something that adults talked about all the time. I thought that unless you could get involved in war somehow, you couldn’t really be grown up.”

Then there is the mechanical paraphernalia of war. “Even if they [boys] are not interested in war, they are interested in tractors and diggers. And tanks are a similar thing on a grand scale. Tanks look like the sort of thing a small boy would invent, like a Tonka Toy, cumbersome, with caterpillar tracks. And nothing can get in. No matter how hard your mum bangs on the roof, you don’t have to open up.”

The BBC’s daily news programme for children, Newsround, has the sensitive job of telling them about Iraq. The programme is cautious with the images shown, says Newsround’s editor Tim Levell, but gives a proper account, bombs and all. Their audience research has produced splendidly archetypal results. “Girls want insight into people and relationships. Boys want anarchic and bizarre stuff they can brag about.”

It’s not that boys are pitiless but Newsround has learnt the need to report Iraq in a way that engages them. “They see the excitement of night vision footage and tanks driving and explosions happening. And then they separately see children who are made to suffer by war. They are outraged by the latter and slightly glued by the former.”

This is certainly true of Benedict. However, something Lee Murphy said made me realise doting parents can overestimate how much five-year-olds really understand. I’d asked Murphy if primary school children comprehend the suffering in war.

“By the top end they do. Lower down I wouldn’t expect them to, because it’s quite sophisticated thinking. If you are watching the television, loads of it is just fantasy. So where do you draw the line between Dr Who and a bomb going off in Iraq? Children below a certain age do not realise what is news and what is not. They are still in the stage where everything is based around fun, play and excitement.”

Hearing my son chatter cheerily about bombs in Iraq disturbs me because I have some idea of the reality. He on the other hand is not yet sure what reality is. When Benedict hears about Prince Harry going to Iraq, he is thinking of a prince as in fairy tales, heading off with a lance and charger like a smiling Playmobil knight.

11 May 2007

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