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)