The Americans counted their bullets, pressed their backs against the stack of Tintin books, and waited.
The Japanese army was everywhere. Half a dozen sappers were already crawling through the scattering of Lego blocks on the western perimeter, and there were rumours of a sniper up on the book shelf. Sarge bellowed into his radio again, begging for air cover, but the Mustang was still being refuelled under the duvet.
The Battle of the Bedroom Floor was interrupted by a polite knock on my door. Our house-guest had been sent to call me to dinner.
He was a plump, kind man with a shock of fading yellow hair and eyes that wrinkled to nothing when he smiled, which was often. His English was poor and so he adopted a jovial silence, beaming and nodding to show that he was enjoying the conversation if not contributing to it.
But now, as he looked at the toy soldiers strewn across the floor, his face was pale and unsmiling. Even though I was not yet 10, I realised that something had hurt him as he knocked and looked down. It had slipped through his defences because he had never expected to encounter it here, in the room of a child. He leaned against the doorframe, and seemed enormously tired.
“This is a game?” he asked. It didn’t sound like a question. It sounded like an accusation. Then the real question came.
“But why would you play this?”
Later, seeing my embarrassment, my parents explained.
Our guest was German and when he was in his late teens he had been drafted into Hitler’s navy and sent aboard the battleship Tirpitz. The ship was relentlessly hunted and spent the war limping from one Norwegian fjord to another, where steep mountains and shallow water offered some protection from the British bombers and submarines that pursued it. Forty years later, that fear still clung to our guest: many of the Cape’s coastal roads, where mountains plunge into the sea, made him anxious.
In the end the bombers found their target. The Tirpitz was destroyed, along with 1000 of its crew.
Our guest survived the attack and the war. Millions didn’t. All of his brothers were drafted and killed. Hitler sent his mother a medal for surrendering so many of her babies to the meat grinder.
“But why would you play this?” At the time, I thought I heard disbelief in his voice and that was why I was embarrassed. I thought he was saying: “You stupid child, how could you take any pleasure from war?”
We swear that now we know better
Now, though, I think I understand his tone better. It wasn’t disbelief. It was despair.
When industrialised killing ends, we bow our heads and swear that now we know better. Those working to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive say, “Never again.” In those first moments after the killing stops, it seems the most fundamental truth that it should never start again; that war is an obscene crime.
And yet here I was: a child, playing at mass murder. Somewhere in those first eight or nine years I had learned that war was fun. And I think that’s why the kind, anxious German felt overcome with despair. We had learned nothing.
I wonder what that damaged man would say about our politics, where every day the imagery and rhetoric of war become more entrenched and more normalised. Jacob Zuma now goes nowhere without a platoon of helmeted, camouflaged stormtroopers carrying assault weapons. The EFF, already fond of uniforms and talk of fighting, crushing, overthrowing and destroying, has begun to let its civilian veneer slip: Julius Malema has spoken publicly about waging war against the current government, and at the party’s election manifesto launch, leaders were flanked by enormous men in camouflage fatigues.
Revolutionaries like to warn us about how deeply we’ve been indoctrinated by racism, sexism and capitalism. Yet, oddly, for people who claim to be fighting for a peaceful future run by civilians, they remain silent about militarism. Both left and right still recite the utterly discredited Victorian euphemisms for killing to make a few profiteers richer: “the fallen”, “the ultimate sacrifice”, “the glorious dead”, “martyrs”. Basically, all the stuff Hitler told that man’s mother.
It seems ridiculous that one needs to spell it out. You’d think we’d know by now; that we might have learned to stop playing at soldiers like ignorant 9-year-olds. But since we haven’t, here goes.
War is bad.
Those who use its rhetoric have no plans to do any actual fighting. They’ll leave that to you, but if you get killed they’ll do their best to send your mother a telegram.
The people who will win will not be your friends. They will not look after you when it’s over.
So to those South Africans cheering the war-talk, I ask again: “Why would you play this?”