The OGP advocates offering children a bigger picture of war other than the usual media glorification of it. A simple way to do that early on is to read Winnie the Pooh, then tell the story of the author, veteran A.A. Milne. His story is complex, but he lamented that his adult books about ending war weren’t famous like the adventures of his honey-loving bear. Children need to know there are veterans like Milne who want to spare them the awful things soldiers go through.
Children should also know Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who stopped American soldiers massacring civilians at My Lai in Vietnam. For younger children, he was just stopping friends from being bullies. For older children, the full story of courage and Geneva Conventions violations could move them to becoming world leaders with mediation skills. We don’t give kids guns and say “go defend yourselves,” and international conflict could benefit from the skills of teachers who break up playground fights.
My uncle had a story I wish we could have heard more of as children. He walked with an iron leg brace, but all we heard growing up was that he was injured in the war. Before he died, I persuaded him to tell this story.
He said: “I was in WWII in Germany, sent back to headquarters with dead soldiers and money the men wanted sent home. Heading back to my unit, I was blasted out of my Jeep by a German sniper. I would have died, but some German farmers, part of the ‘resistance,’ carried me by wheelbarrow to an army ambulance and recovery in military hospitals.”
I saw Hacksaw Ridge the first week it was in theaters, and later the DVD was a door prize at my Golden Valley Legion meeting. It tells the story of Desmond Doss serving as a World War II medic with no weapon. His church taught all killing was wrong, so he was harassed for being a coward until he risked his life saving hundreds of fellow soldiers in a horrendous, unnecessary battle. The story resonates because I was a medic, deliberately carrying no weapon during the war in Vietnam. I always figured my job was simply getting soldiers back home where they belong.
Children can absorb a certain amount of complexity, and they need fewer war stories, and more stories about nonlethal force, like the unknown “underground railroad” types who saved many intended victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The simple force of personal war loss is in Eve Bunting’s children’s book, “The Wall,” about a dad taking his son to see his grandfather’s name on the Vietnam Wall.
In 1995, I watched Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during Vietnam, say “I’m sorry. I knew before I left the Pentagon the war was wrong.” I went to the Wall in 1996, looking for friends’ names, and stumbled on my own. The intense moment overwhelmed me with gratitude to be alive, but also intense grief for that Larry Johnson’s family. High-level cowards get their names memorialized in prestigious places. My anger asks, “If you knew it was wrong, why did you fill the Wall with names, then let so many struggle when they made it back?”
Children need the story, “I joined the American Legion [or the VFW] because they started up to fight for promised benefits veterans often don’t get.” Another medic story children should know is the one of Waverly Woodson, an African American man who risked his life to save many fellow soldiers on D-Day. Still, like virtually all WWII soldiers of color, Woodson’s courage did not warrant the Medal of Honor. I own David Rabb’s “From A to Z: What a Veteran Means to Me,” an alphabet book that illustrates that C is for Courage. There’s also Q is for Quality Health Care and N is for Negotiation, making war less likely. Rabb is a retired African American Army Reserve Colonel. He is a friend, clinical social worker and a colleague in fighting for better veteran mental health care. His book can be a bridge for telling veteran stories, from the heart, to the children in your life.