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In some closet, I still have toy soldiers from my 1950s childhood. They played a crucial role in an all-American world of good guys and bad guys I learned about, in part, from the westerns and war movies my father took me to at local movie theaters. I can still remember playing out those long-lost stories out with a motley assortment of bluecoats, redcoats, GIs (of the green plastic variety), and Indians on the floor of my remarkably empty room in the era before childhood had been truly discovered as a marketplace of significance. I didn’t even have blocks to build battlefields, so I used my books, which, in two facing rows, became cliffs on either side of a narrow defile. The treacherous Indians would peer over The Pony Express or Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia, commanding the heights of the valley of death below into which the cavalry would have to ride. Preparing their ambush, they would “lie” on top of books or “crouch” behind them, fingering — in my imagination, of course — bows, tomahawks, or guns.
Into that grim valley, the bluecoats (and because I had too few of them, the GIs and redcoats from other wars entirely) would ride. Well, actually most of them weren’t mounted because I was short a reasonable troop of cavalry or even a full contingent of foot soldiers. Choosing the order of the cast of characters for that “ride” and so who was to be handed over to destruction lent individual character and value to each treasured good guy. Yet, if the initial ambush was to be satisfying, death had to be faced, which meant choosing the most lackluster of those figures — casualties of previous battles with chipped paint, broken limbs, or busted-off rifles — to fall in the first cascade of arrows. The crucial question was when to stop the killing of the bluecoats and begin the destined slaughter of the Indians with which all such stories in that bygone era had to end. A satisfying cutoff point was needed, especially given a countervailing temptation — to go all the way, to wipe out every last bluecoat. Sometimes it was powerful enough that I found myself almost siding with the Indians, which hinted at something novel hidden away in this traditional storytelling process. It also hinted at a moment, still years away in my life, when in the midst of a grim, never-ending war in Vietnam, that American war story of my childhood, the very definition of who was a good guy and a bad guy, would be turned on its head. Yet, in all those “battles” on the floor of my room, I never gave in to that temptation and brought myself to test out what another kind of story would truly feel like.
Amid the carnage, as arrows rained down, a few Indians would begin to fall. There was no particular order, no special precedence in the roll call of death, since bad guys were, by their nature, essentially indistinguishable, the only exception being “the chief.” He held a silver-bladed tomahawk, and miraculously in those days, his arm actually pivoted at the shoulder. As the sole Indian with a distinguishing trait, he was invariably the last to die.
These scenes from my childhood — and with minor variations I suspect, from so many childhoods of that era — came to mind when I read the latest piece by TomDispatch regular and Army Major Danny Sjursen, author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, on our never-ending wars in the Greater Middle East. He raises a much-needed twenty-first-century question that still couldn’t be more awkward: Who, on the all-too-real, still-spreading American battlefields of our world, are the good guys and who are the bad guys of our time? And then, of course, there’s that other question: What story, if any, about the wars of our moment will future American children, no longer undoubtedly on the floors of their rooms but in as yet unknown entertainment environments, play?