I have been waging war with my father since before I could remember.
It’s true. Lining shelves, and tucked away in boxes, bins, and bags in my parents’ house near Boston are thousands of plastic and metal soldiers (or “guys,” as we call them), along with dozens of tanks, cannons, horses, caissons, and fortifications. My father’s particular obsession/passion is the Pacific Theater of World War II, whereas mine is the Napoleonic Wars, but our collections encompass dozens of different eras, conflicts, and belligerents.
To be clear, while they are beautiful and intricately detailed, these soldiers are not heirlooms or valuable antiques. We don’t paint them or put them on permanent display. They are toy soldiers, sturdy and meant to be played with, preferably on the largest scale possible.
When I was growing up, we used to set up hundreds of our soldiers five or six times a year and stage enormous battles. These were typically all-day affairs, fought across entire rooms, yards, or beaches, and always with massive casualties. The rules were unwritten, but well-understood between us and faithfully adhered to. After selecting a battlefield, assembling any structures or fortifications, and putting our guys into position, we would take turns implementing our respective strategies. Gunfire was simulated by use of plastic rubber band guns. We would crouch down behind an individual soldier, and shoot from his perspective: one rubber band for a rifle or musket; three for a machine gun. Cannon fire might be replicated with larger projectiles, or simply simulated under the “rules of engagement” that also governed hand-to-hand combat.
Though most of these campaigns have been lost to history, the details remain vivid in our memories. How could we forget the Battle of Grandma’s Backyard, for instance, in which I led a brigade of British and Hessian infantry (supported by a contingent of historically-questionable Native American light cavalry) to victory over a superior force of Continental and French troops under my father’s command? We still speak with reverence of the encounter at the “Hornet’s Nest” — a tangle of exposed tree roots on my left flank where the Hessians valiantly repelled wave upon wave of French fusiliers.
It’s been nearly 15 years since our last battle (a Midway-esque scrap between an American aircraft carrier and a squadron of Japanese Zeros that took up two whole rooms). We talk about having another epic contest someday, but our collections have grown so much over the years that finding a battlefield large enough presents a serious challenge.
On the surface, this hobby is quintessentially (almost comically) masculine, involving as it does scale models of men in uniform fighting with guns. It has never held any interest for my mother or sisters. I doubt we own a single female soldier, and our battles never involve home fronts. The guys never invoke their wives or daughters; they never refer to women at all.
And yet, compared with, say, playing catch or raking leaves or talking about sports or politics, browsing through toy soldier stores, discovering a prize among the legions of cheap China knock-offs, and battling desperately to hold the sandbox has always seemed like one of the least stereotypically masculine things my father and I do together. Even as a child, I sensed that it was a quiet and reflective hobby, far more collaborative than competitive. It was never really something I enjoyed doing or discussing with other boys my age. And I knew that its antiseptic carnage was as connected to actual violence or militarism as Mario Kart is to actual car racing.
In fact, if anything, playing with toy soldiers helped me to combat some of the more toxic effects of traditional masculinity. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her contribution to the 2007 anthology, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation, suggests that “because a dominant image of masculinity tells them that they should be self-sufficient and dominant,” many boys/men are driven to “flee from their inner world of feeling, and from articulate mastery of their own emotional experiences.” Such discomfort with introspection can lead to an excess of aggression and a lack of empathy. However, Nussbaum contends that it can also be remedied, in large part, by reading and telling stories from a young age.
Unfortunately, for a hyperactive child such as I was, this sage advice could be difficult to follow. Well into elementary school, I was barely able to sit still, much less read a novel or keep a journal. Under these circumstances, my creative and intellectual interests might easily have withered, and been overtaken either by passive or purely physical diversions.
Soldiers were my salvation. They calmed me down and channeled my frenetic energy into something more constructive than watching TV or simply running around. I loved how intricate and tactile they were; how they felt in my hands and how they looked in columns arrayed across a miniature landscape. Moreover, they possessed an emotional and historical realism that most of my other toys lacked.
Over time, each soldier became a character and each battle a story. The desire to depict those characters and tell those stories as vividly as possible (or as vividly as my father did) drove me to expand my horizons beyond the Land of Counterpane. This peculiar hobby inspired a lifetime passion, not only for history (both military and general), but for narrative, drama, artistic representation and, eventually, literature.
It also dispelled any illusions I may have had of masculine self-reliance. A cavalry scout on a week-long reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines may believe he is an island, not dependent on anyone but himself. A son receiving a 54mm plastic cavalry scout from his father for this 25th birthday knows this isn’t so.