Playing War

As a child I loved playing war so much that it affected my religious education. When I was about ten, Father Doyle would come once a week to Scoil Bhríde primary school, Athgarvan to teach us the finer point of Catholic doctrine.

“Thou shalt not kill,” he said, which seemed a bit extreme.

“What if there’s a terrorist holding hostages in a cable car and he’s got his finger on a detonator and the only way to stop him setting the bomb off is to shoot him in the head?” I asked (I really did ask this).

“That’s probably okay,” he said, “but you’d have to go to confession afterwards.”

“What if there were three enemy soldiers shooting at you and you could technically disarm them by shooting them in the legs but it would be safer for innocent bystanders to just shoot them in the head?” I asked.

“You should shoot them in the legs,” he said.

“What if you have a murderer at your mercy because he’s surrendered but you suspect he will escape and kill again?” I asked. “Couldn’t you just kill him?”

“That would be right out,” said Father Doyle firmly.

I was very disappointed. I wanted to be able to kill people without going to hell. Not all people. Just bad people. Like the Germans and the Japanese and possibly the Russians (depending on the war).

My knowledge of geopolitics and the rules of engagement came primarily from British comics like Warlord, Victor and Battle which, for the most part, depicted war as a straightforward fight between goodies and baddies (there were some nuanced exceptions like “Charley’s War” by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun, but as a child the subtleties went over my head). These were ripping yarns of derring-do, sacrifice and bravery.

I would enact stories influenced by these comics with a huge box filled with plastic soldiers modelled on World War II battalions. These were strangely relatively lifelike plastic figures frozen in action – there was “man running with bayonet” for example, and “chap kneeling while firing a rifle” and “man with moustache, pointing” (don’t get me started on the ennui-inducing “fellow waving”).

The scenarios I enacted typically involved sadistic Jerries fighting a squad of grizzled old rookies, naïve new recruits, wise-cracking jokers, snooty officers and comedy Scotsmen called “Jock”. I’d start with a squad of ten (usually Matchbox’s WWII British infantry) who would be whittled down one by one, culminating in the shocking death of one of my favourites (usually “guy throwing a grenade”). I’d give “guy throwing a grenade” a heartrending death scene which culminated with his best chum (“fellow wielding a Bren gun”) saying “NOOO!” Then spurred on by “fellow wielding a Bren gun’s” hunger for revenge, the tide would turn and good would triumph.

“Guy throwing a grenade” never died in vain.

Playing war with human children was more complicated. Because my dad was in the actual army we had access to cool gear (the above picture is me aged four, used subsequently on the cover of my first band’s single). Decked out in real old army helmets, canteens, pouches and canvas bags, we looked the part (except for the fact we were ten and were holding  brightly coloured plastic guns) but the games would almost always descend into chaotic arguments about whether someone had been shot or not.

There would also disagreements about our chosen scenarios. My cousin always wanted us to be the Americans fighting the Russians. The game once descended into a shouting match when I suggested, based on a Battle story called “Johnny Red”, that sometimes the Russians were goodies. “THEY’RE COMMIE RATS!” he yelled tearfully, when I presented a challenging passage about a kindly Russian soldier sharing his rations with Johnny.

Playing war was more straightforward when we played with older boys. They always wanted to play a variation called “Prisoners of War.” The rules of “Prisoners of War” were simple. Five to ten younger boys would be given a head start and would run out across the Curragh Plains to hide. Then we would be hunted down one by one, lightly beaten and tied to a tree. “This is like real war,” I thought appreciatively, watching from a gorse bush as two teenage thugs repeatedly thumped my best friend. Painful and sadistic “Prisoners of War” might have been, but I liked the fact that there were clear cut rules.

As I got older I still wanted to play war, but it was getting less and less acceptable to be seen hunkered in a corner with plastic toys. For a while I sought legitimacy by developing a complex rule-based system for playing toy soldiers. Then I got temporarily diverted into role-playing games before playing the violent computer game Doom for a year (the eventual cure for “playing war”, I realise in retrospect, was “knowing the touch of a woman”).

All and all, playing war is a very strange thing to do. Nobody, as far as I know, ever plays pestilence or famine. I think deep down, whether it’s encultured or primal, many of us think that being in a war would be great fun altogether. It probably wouldn’t be though, now that I think about it.

(by Patrick Freyne)

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14 thoughts on “Playing War

  1. fústar says:

    I never recall having any interest in playing the Allies. Early exposure to the fetishised fascism of the Empire, in Star Wars, meant that I thought the shiny, shiny, shiny boots of (Nazi) leather were cool and sexy. As, indeed, they are (if you like being erotically whipped). In my defence, I hadn’t, at that point, heard about the minor ethical mis-step that was the “Final Solution”. I blame Darth Vader.

    • Patrick Freyne says:

      One of the things I find fascinating about all those old war comics, was that you could learn loads and loads about the military history of WWII without ONCE reading about the holocaust. It was totally left out of the narrative. I also liked the German army soldiers but felt guilty about making them goodies (unless they were fighting Russians, this, I learned from the comics, was okay)

      • fústar says:

        Remember “Hellman of Hammer Front” in Battle? A rare-ish example of a “Good German” character in the pages of British War comics. A military man who favoured the fair fight and was ambivalent (or even hostile) to Nazism. Most such characters were based on every war junkie’s favourite uniformed German: Erwin Rommel.

        Dealing with the holocaust in Boys’ comics would have complicated (to put it very mildly) the simple “pleasures” of a narrative of a noble war between goodies and baddies.

        Astonishingly, the way many Israeli boys first “consumed” the holocaust (albeit somewhat obliquely) was through “Stalag” fiction. Pulp paperbacks sold at newspaper kiosks that were basically S&M/Porn stories about busty, whip-wielding, female, camp officers torturing allied prisoners. Thinking about the implication of that fusion of predatory sex, horror, titillation and tragedy (consumed by a Jewish audience) makes my head spin…

      • Ms Avery says:

        “you could learn loads and loads about the military history of WWII without ONCE reading about the holocaust”

        Really? That’s bizarre. What an odd thing to gloss over. (I was raised Jewish and can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust.)

        When I was about four, my brother and I used to play a game that involved picking a random object, calling it Hitler, then methodically wrecking it. It was the closest we could get to war play, since my dad was a pacifist and didn’t approve of it.

  2. I suppose when the next generation are posting fondly on this blog , it will be all about the bleak outcrops of Wake Island or the Industrial wasteland of Karkand. Great piece!

  3. fústar says:

    Ms. Avery – The focus of these comics was, first and foremost, war/combat as a dramatic “game”. Winners/losers. Goodies/baddies. There were, of course, exceptions (as Patrick points out), but generally speaking political chicanery, civilian suffering, anti-war movements and, yes, genocide didn’t feature in the narratives. Must have a look through some of the yellowed old issues to see if there are exceptions I can’t think of off the top of my head.

    • Ms Avery says:

      I get what you mean — but for us, the baddie-ness of the Germans always hinged on the whole genocide thing. You don’t get more bad than that.

      I just think it’s an odd choice that when these comics set out to present such a black-and-white view of the war, they deliberately omitted one of the really bad things that the bad guys did. Although I suppose it’s kind of a downer…

      • Patrick Freyne says:

        Hi Ms Avery – the baddie-ness of the Germans hinges on genocide for, I think, nearly everyone. It certainly did by the time I was reading those comics in the 70s and 80s. So it seems really weird to me that those stories avoided it.

        But here’s my theory: These comics were built on tales of derring do that were first developed as part of UK war propaganda. That propaganda famously underplayed the concentration camps (because chunks of the British public was perceived to be anti-semitic) and always presented the war as the story of a plucky island nation defending weaker countries against expansionist nazis.

        By the time I was reading war comics, which were, let’s face it a pulpy, conservative and not hugely reflective medium, that narrative had fossilized.

      • Ms Avery says:

        Gotcha. I didn’t know that about British propaganda, but this makes a lot more sense in that light. Thanks!

  4. JayRow says:

    Brilliant piece. I used to love playing war games, I particularly liked it when I could master making the sound of an automatic weapon with my mouth, when all we had for guns were branches and half-broken hurleys. As we got older and watched MacGyver, we became wildlife park rangers fighting poachers..or, a firm favourite – Columbian drug cartels. Not that we knew where Columbia was, or indeed what cocaine actually was. But we fixed many a national drug problem with our wits and broken hurleys back in the day…

    • Patrick Freyne says:

      We used to use hurleys as guns as well! I think as we got older we thought it was somehow more grown up to use them rather than fake guns because you could actually use them as a weapon when you got tired of making that automatic weapon sound

  5. Anna Carey says:

    Ms Avery, I can’t remember not knowing about the Holocaust either, but I think that’s partly because, as a girl who wasn’t interested in war comics, most my early knowledge of the war came from books like When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and Anne Frank’s diary and books about youthful British refugees. All of that gave readers the war through the eyes of civilians both in Britain and Nazi-occupied countries – no gung-ho battle-field heroics!

    • Ms Avery says:

      I remember putting off reading WHSPR as long as possible. Not because of the whole Hitler thing, but because the book clearly involved toys in peril. I was a delicate child in some ways.

  6. Patrick Freyne says:

    My knowledge of the Holocaust when I was younger came from other sources (like the ones Anna mentioned). Because of the strange focus of British war comics it didn’t have the centrality to WWII in my young mind that it should have had.

    I wonder if it’s because the main adventure stories in those comics were at the outset modeled on British wartime propaganda – which actually downplayed concentration camps and preferred to focus on resistance fighters and prisoners of war?

    I’d be curious if John manages to root out any more interesting takes from his yellowing pile of comics. The only story I can think of with any real nuance is Charley’s War (mainly about WWI)- but there were probably others

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