He loves toy soldiers. He likes the swift, bracing feeling of their uniforms. He respects the steadfast pace of their tank tracks. He enjoys the tantalizing idea of their weapons.
He stands in bittersweet sorrow at the side of the road where a shrine marks the remembrance of a family for a soldier dead these seventy years--fled from an occupied homeland and lost on the eastern front. He vows that he will smite all those who harm children and invade small countries.
Five years old and he asks me to remember to bring rubber gloves, so we can pick up litter on the way home from school.
On the weekend we go to the grandparents and sit around the table in the kitchen where Nazi soldiers once stole the milk and left our grandfather hungry as a little boy.
"Don't push me!" my little son sobs when his sister jabs an elbow into his middle while they wait for Grandma's soup. He clobbers her on the head with his spoon.
"Boys don't cry!" Grandpa bellows.
The little boy stares at him with wide shocked eyes. It is possible--though unlikely--that this is actually the first time he has heard that old adage.
At our house, boys do cry and jabbing and hitting are the more serious offenses. Gritting my teeth, I handle the situation diplomatically.
After dinner Grandma hands out gifts to the children, since we weren't here during the holidays--earrings for the girl, a nerf pistol for the boy. They are both very happy. Who am I to complain?
And yet I know that in this adopted country where we live (the Czech Republic) the chance that one's son will become a soldier and go off into a terrible war--where he may be killed or lose his sense of humanity--is minuscule. They don't understand that for American boys in families without wealth the stats are far different. He will not always be a boy here. He is a US citizen because of me and someday he will be a young man and a target for recruiters.
I have two new teenage ESL students. More boys. They bring in an article from their English study magazine. It's about world peace. I ask open ended questions to get them using English grammar. Do you want peace? Yes. Do you think we should have a military? Well, only a very small one. If we have a small military, who will tackle an evil force such as Hitler when it comes again? The UN.
I do understand their perspective, but one of them is headed to the US as an exchange student in a few months. I have a talk with him about it, explaining about how Americans who study only American history see these things differently, how such well-reasoned statements can be considered highly controversial.
Later my five-year-old is still playing with his tank and toy soldiers. He loves the sound effects of war. But when we write down wishes for the next year to put into our special wish jar, he says, "I wish all soldiers would be careful not to hurt anyone."
And when scolded, even gently he cries. And that is okay because boys will be boys. A hug will fix it.
How do I explain the world of violence to small children? Or do they know already? Sometimes they ask the most discerning questions. I could swear they know the score all too well.
"Mama, why do presidents get to make wars?"