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Essay

War Games

My friends and I played Army a lot when I was a kid. Today, people are understandably upset at the thought of children playing war because war is no game. Violence is an ugly business and it's unsettling to think of children rehearsing it.

As a small child, I spent a good deal of time with my paternal grandparents. My grandmother saw great value in "Captain Kangaroo," much to the chagrin of my grandfather who loved all news shows. We only had two TV channels back then (but still managed to waste time watching them.) So, he took news where he could get it. "The Today Show" — oriented more to hard news then — was a major news source. The "Captain" was on at the same time. My grandmother sided with me, so after the first hour of "Today," we switched.

However, she did not approve of all my favorites. She particularly disdained Roy Rogers. She called his films "shoot'em ups."

My dad loved one television program — "Gunsmoke." Our family watched it almost every Saturday night until it moved to Monday in 1967. It was considered an "adult western." (I hate to think what that would mean today.) In a Roy Rogers movie, you can see mostly bloodless shooting and fighting, but no dance hall girls, gambling, or drinking. Still, Roy's gunplay disturbed my grandmother.

Common sense told her what many studies would later confirm — television influences children. Did the gun violence still prevalent in society today, partially come from the heroes of my youth? If a kid watched Roy Rogers, then pretended to be Roy Rogers, was he rehearsing violence?

One reason for the phenomenal success of the first Star Wars film in 1977 was the purity of its heroes. For the ten years or so preceding Star Wars, movie heroes had become anti-heroes. But George Lucas didn't give us complicated "Gunsmoke" style "Saturday night" characters and plot. He recreated the Saturday matinee with characters like Roy Rogers. Yes, Han Solo was a bit of a rascal, but we never doubted his heart of gold. Luke Skywalker's only flaw was immaturity. Obi-Wan Kenobi had no flaws and Darth Vader was his opposite. Darth's only redeeming quality in the original film was his cool black suit. And, like scores of Dale Evans' movie characters, Princess Leia had pluck, but still needed to be rescued.

In 1977, the world was hungry for heroes. It still is.

Little boys in days gone by — pretending to ride Trigger, chase down bad guys, fight with fists and guns — were not primarily rehearsing violence. Primarily, they were rehearsing heroism. They fought to protect the good, seek consistent but merciful justice, win the girl, bring peace.

Little boys and girls tend to feel powerless. In pretend world, they become enormously strong. Guns are sometimes part of it. Superhero abilities can be part of it. They were created to be heroes and heroines. They know this instinctively. They long to be good guys. It's how they want to see themselves.

Much has been written about Star Wars films succeeding because George Lucas drew on old mythologies and created a new one. But I see it more simply. He tapped the hero-instinct . . . the need for triumphant good.

In this Summer of the angst-ridden-superhero, I wonder if the world might not be ready again for good guys in white hats riding horses like Trigger or in spaceships like the Millennium Falcon, with friends like Tonto, Chewbacca, or Gabby Hayes, going about doing good, and defeating evil against great odds.

Ultimately, all merely human heroes fail. That's why "Gunsmoke" was more realistic than "The Roy Rogers Show." That's why we have to make up really great heroes. But there remains One who never fails — One Whose grace is enough, Whose mercy endures forever, Whose love never fails. In the "summer of the superhero," it's interesting to consider that one superhero actually exists . . . One and only One.

War Games
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Posted: 7-25-2008

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