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Going to war


It's just a little patch of woods between subdivisions just outside Chapel Hill. I'm sure that one day a developer will talk whomever owns it into selling and that will be that. But for now it's one of my favorite places to walk, or was.

There's a shallow little creek and the purling of its water can cure frustration or anger or confusion. It's far enough from the roads that if you stroll there in the middle of the week, say early afternoon, you can go for long stretches of time hearing only the wind rustling leaves or a crow caw-cawing. It was a place where you could forget the doings of the other humans.

It's also a favorite place for the neighborhood boys who have made trails along the creek and up through the woods. Someone's father built them a sturdy bridge so that they could cross the creek and continue their romps on the other side. And, I discovered recently, the boys have further enhanced the terrain.

They have been busy. They scrounged sheets of scrap plyboard from nearby construction sites and nailed it to some of the trees. They've hung yards of black plastic between the trunks and cut in ragged square windows. Someone got hold of some burlap and they've made a tent-like construction with that. On the lower limbs they've wired old grill tops. Somehow they laid hands on two damaged doors and they are propped against trees. My sylvan glade now looks as though it were in the path of a flood.

I recognized the scene as soon as I saw it. In fact, I knew it intimately. It was a battlefield.

My son had told me that some of the boys had gotten paintball guns and I could see that the battle lines had been drawn, the outposts constructed. War had been here, and would be again.

My first reaction was a pang of sadness. My private little mid-week Walden had been trashed, littered with the detritus of garages and basements. But then the dry leaf smells of autumn afternoons came back to me and I could almost feel the bulge of acorns in my pockets. Acorns were the low-tech paintballs of my boyhood and my friends and I had spent hours in planning attack strategy and then in carrying out our stinging charges. It was undeniable. These bulwarks of plyboard and forts of black plastic would give our boys long afternoons of pleasure.

But if they weren't given violent toys. If they didn't watch gore-laden movies and play video games that awarded points for killing. I hear those voices and say perhaps. I also hear the voice of Robert E. Lee as he watched federal troops charge over the mangled bodies of their comrades at Fredericksburg. The courtly general turned to James Longstreet and said, "It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it."

Perhaps if we didn't write about war, didn't glorify it by reading The Iliad, The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Naked and The Dead. Perhaps if we didn't make movies and paintings and write songs about it. Perhaps. But those art works all speak of war's terror, its carnage and waste.

War is terrible. I hope our boys never have to learn that lesson, but it will take great acts of will to prevent that because the darker lesson, the more terrible knowledge, is that war has long been our companion. And it is likely to be so again.

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