Consider Toy Soldiers

Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books.
Full title of H.G. Wells’ 1913 rule book for playing with tin soldiers

Old toy soldiers were a fixture in the local bookshop window when I was growing up. The store owner was Frank Womrath, a veteran of World War II. His affection for the military history represented by those hollow-cast lead figures had been well and truly earned.

I ached for a set. It did not matter which one. Highlanders in Black Watch kilts, Royal Marines, Buffalo Soldiers, or rag-tag Green Mountain Boys—all were beautiful. Hints were dropped; none were taken. What would a ten-year-old girl do with toy soldiers? My designs on them would have disappointed Wells: I’d have played house with them. I loved them for the same reasons I loved doll houses—for the Lilliputian charm of them.

H.G. Wells indoor gameBut there are better reasons to reclaim toy soldiers from adult collectors and return them to the children they were created for. T.S. Allen, a West Point graduate and second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, discussed those reasons in “Tis the Season for Toy Soldiers,” a recent guest editorial in The New York Sun.

The toy soldier is unique among toys in that he has an opponent and invites opposition. Once a child has grown old enough to begin aping the real world, she or he sets up an objective for the toys, and hopefully their friends bless them with competition. Rules (or, more often, norms of argumentation) are established to determine the feasability of achieving those objectives. A simple Kriegspiel develops.

In this way, the toy soldier models the real world better than any other toy. The world is and always will be a place of endless tension between competing forces. A child’s blocks and drawing-books may teach them reasoning, but cannot teach them the limits of reason. From toy battles the child learns two things. First, opposition is inevitable, and will come not just from the “enemy.” Little armies are afflicted by what military men call “friction of war” — they are hard to maneuver and fall over at the most inconvenient times. Second, the best way to overcome opposition is with aggressive initiative — forcing them to respond to you, rather than responding to them.

The school of the toy soldier educated many of the great leaders of the past. Winston Churchill, in tin wars against his brotherJack, learned from toy soldiers the craftiness about battle that he used to such effect against the host of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It is not just military men who have learned from their toys. Understanding of friction and instinctive intiative are military virtues, but they have equal value in the civilian world.

Anti-war dogma encourages magical thinking about a dangerous world and the abiding reality of enemies who do not smile on us. Toy soldiers are anathema in a cultural climate that entrusts its survival to certificates in conflict resolution and Orwellian word changes. Adult manners sweep the playroom clean of toy cannons and wind-up tanks. Today’s polite rumpus room is a hand-held video arcade with shooting games that test nothing more than manual reflexes:

Children will always find ways to play war. Video games, the new war toys, are an awful substitute. They teach children (falsely) that violence is enjoyable, easy to use, and sanitary. Toy soldiers do the opposite — indeed, in their heydey, they were seen as an antidote to rampant militarism. H.G. Wells, who revolutionized tin war with his 1913 book Little Wars, insisted that “I have never yet met in little battle any military gentleman, any captain, major, colonel, general, or eminent commander, who did not presently get into difficulties and confusions among even the elementary rules of the Battle. You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realize just what a blundering thing Great War must be.”

Photo by Mike Peters.This Christmas, while we intone that lovely phrase “Peace on earth,” events remind us that the peace we are promised—the peace that passeth all understanding—is eschatological. Good will is not a virtue of history. Consider granting toy soldiers some space around the manger.