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Fiction #404
(published October 16, 2008)
The Theatre of War
by Siamak Vossoughi
Fields of battle throughout history where men had fought and died had culminated in the beautiful sand dunes of the Presidio of San Francisco serving as the theater of war for a group of students from Presidio Hill School, and the young man who had brought them there thought that that must have often been the case—that even the sight of the bay in the distance added to the spirit of battle for its participants, rather than contrasted with it. Each group had probably believed that nature was on its side, and nature hadn't been able to tell anyone that it wasn't on either side, or at the least it was on both sides, but most of all it was on the side of those who had laid down their arms, or had never picked them up in the first place. They were the ones most in need of something on their side anyway.

Something could be said about the dead and nature too, if he was going to go in that direction. They were so much on the side of nature that they had gone ahead and joined it. It did not feel like there was any contrast in being among the children and thinking of the dead. It did not feel like there was any contrast even in a place so alive with the warm sun and the cool of the eucalyptus trees. And anyway, in the time that he was alive, war was a thing that very much included children.

There were some facts to consider: When he was a boy, a shelter of branches would have looked very much like a fort to him too. A stick would have looked very much like a gun. And running and hiding behind a tree in order to spy on the enemy would have seemed like the best thing to do about the existence of trees and the spaces between them.

There was a thrill in the order of a chain of command, soldiers reporting to colonels and colonels reporting to generals. And there was the love expressed at the moment of death, for one's side by the dying, before being miraculously saved, and for one's dying comrade by swearing revenge.

He knew all of that to be true, and he didn't know where else they were supposed to get all of it from, but at the same time, he wanted them to know about the children in the world who could not afford to play games about war. Those kids were a part of him as much as the kids in front of him were a part of him. And because the ones in front of him were kids, they were less likely to think that something was being taken from them when they learned about somewhere else. It was a park, and the idea was that what kids ran off to do in a park was natural, as natural as the bay and the sun and the trees, but what was the difference between children and men when it came to nature? All of the adventure in their game was true, but there was something else that was true too, which was that the men fighting wars had played them as children, and nobody had tried to tell them that peace was just as much of an adventure as war. Just to be a voice in the wilderness, and he might not be able to tell them, but he might be able to show them.

"General, they've captured one of our men!"

The general thought for a moment. "It could be a trap," he said. "Two men are going to have to stay and guard the fort. They could be after our weapons." He motioned toward the pile of sticks beside the tree stump that served as a lookout point.

When only the guards were left, they were approached by a tall man who was a stranger in the kingdom.

"I bring a message from the other side," he said.

"What is it?"

"They say that they don't know what is the point of all this fighting. They say that they would like to meet halfway between the two forts and have a tea party."

The guards were suspicious. "We don't believe you. Why have they captured one of our men?"

"They only did that because they were scared. They saw him in their territory and they reacted. They don't want to keep him though. They want peace, just like your people do."

"We don't want peace. We want war!"

As they spoke, two enemy fighters were crawling up the hill behind the guards towards the weapons cache. They saw their teacher and smiled and put a finger over their lips. The young man saw them and knew that they were going to get some of the sticks. But if they got too close, they might try for the bigger ones, and he didn't want any fighting over those because somebody might get hurt. He waited just long enough to show respect for their stealthiness and then he let his stare linger long enough to make the guards turn around and notice them. They made away with a few small sticks and the guards felt proud to have thwarted a larger disaster.

Well, he thought, timing was something that didn't need a war for a man to feel like he had a good sense of it. It certainly was something that a man could have in peacetime.

Which was why it was more than a joke. Joking was the form it took, but it was all very practical: He wanted to give them two or three things they could do outside of war. He didn't know if it was natural or not, but the forms of war at least that they were using had been given to them by men, and a man ought to balance it out.

It was funny how much children helped in trying to be a good man. When it was going well, it was a job in which he was clocking in to do his best at everything, and never really clocking out at the end of the day, just changing scenes. Who he was to children stayed with him past the time with them, and mixed with who he was to himself, so that the two were very close.

He walked across the sand to the other side and checked on how the battle was progressing. Threats were being issued and demands were being made for the release of the captured soldier. This was why it was thought to be natural: The forms were given to them, but the actions and emotions seemed to come from themselves. They seemed to come from themselves as though they had been waiting for something to come from themselves like that.

Maybe they had been. But maybe he had been too. Maybe he had been waiting for something to come from himself all this time that he had been reading and learning about war and spending his days among children, far away from it. All this time that he had been accepting the contrast, doing so by bringing some rules into it, like not reading any news of war in the morning before seeing the children, waiting until afterwards and reading it at night, when he would be filled up from a day with them in a way that made the reading easier, or at least softer.

"General!" the teacher said. "May I make a suggestion?"

"What is it?"

"Perhaps you could tell them the story of who the captured soldier is as a human being. Perhaps you could tell them the story of his family back home who's worried about him and you could appeal to their sense of common humanity. After all, they have families back home who would be worried about them too if they were captured. Just a suggestion."

The general and his men looked at the teacher with an understanding that this kind of talk was a real part of war—partly because of the men and women they had studied in their class who had had things to say about war and about the whole idea of war—and they liked anything real like that, but they didn't know how to fit that into the game they were playing, not without ending it, and they went back to threats and demands, before retreating to make anew their plans of attack.

But even so, they had a look now like their teacher at least had done his job. They were playing at something that they would never want to actually be doing, and their teacher had reminded them of that, without interrupting the flow of the game. War was bad, even if the flow of their game wasn't bad, and as they ran, they all put that knowledge somewhere inside themselves, near where the bay and the sun and the trees were going.

The young man felt honored, and he couldn't say by what specifically, but it was mostly life. He felt honored to be a part of something that carried so much risk in every moment. Among men a man risked death and among children he risked embarrassment. It was all right either way. The children he knew were going to grow up and see all that. It didn't mean that what they were under now was an illusion. They were being honest in their reaction to the nature around them. They seemed admitting of how they didn't know what else to do about the things that were bigger than them like the sand dunes and the sky, which was better than not admitting it and thinking of themselves as just as big. That was the real illusion. But aspiring to it was honest, and he knew that they'd seen him aspire to it through no war, and as long as they'd seen it, they could go on aspiring to it through war, because he knew that the effects of his aspiring would go past the park, and he knew that they would see that too.

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