We Need Kids’ Shows About War
No use in pretending the world isn't a violent place
For family entertainment, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is remarkably complex. The animated Disney show is about military strategy, chain-of-command, civil-military relations, diplomacy and statecraft.
More importantly, it’s about wartime ethics.
What constitutes acceptable losses in battle? Would you torture a prisoner if you thought it would help save your friends? Should you obey the orders of a commander you believe to be reckless and unethical? And how do you even define victory?
I’ve talked to friends who were slightly taken aback by the frankness with which the show depicts violence and death. Kids watch this show. And it’s a good thing they do.
2018 will be the first year that Americans born after 9/11 will be able to join the U.S. military. It’s far past time that Americans began having some frank conversations with their children about America’s wars. A show like The Clone Wars can help.
Some commentators argue that shows about war desensitize children to violence. Video games, particularly first-person shooters, supposedly have been militarizing a generation of Americans.
However, data from this year’s Harvard Public Opinion Project found that 80 percent of Americans age 18 to 29 would “definitely not” or “probably not” join the military. In fact, only 2.1 percent of Democrats and 3.1 percent of Republicans reported being “nearly certain” that they would join the military. Most seem ambivalent about U.S. wars.
Nevertheless, kids’ shows and young-adult fiction have not shied from war. The successful Hunger Games books and film series deal with authoritarianism and war and aren’t the least bit afraid of killing children.
At top — The Clone Wars. Disney capture. Above — Animorphs art
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has explored surveillance, civilian casualties and the unintended consequences of wars. This summer’s Infinity War shocked some parents who had to console their children after many of the movie’s heroes fell in battle.
Attempts to more directly tackle today’s wars in family films have yielded mixed results. The 2015 film Max, which is about a gold star family adopting the titular military working dog, was a well-intentioned if flawed film. It relies on weary tropes but nevertheless manages some surprisingly incisive commentary about the perils of hero worship and survivor’s guilt.
In a column promoting her book Media Monsters: Militarism, Violence and Cruelty in Children’s Culture, former elementary school teacher Heidi Tilney Kramer bemoaned the presence of 9/11 tropes in entertainment for youngsters.
“What are children to think when their beloved Buzz Lightyear—shown as a friend to all for two of the three films in the series—is tortured, has his personality changed and becomes a prison guard for the cruel overlord in the surveillance-laden dystopia of Toy Story 3?” Kramer asked.
It’s tempting to try shielding America’s youth from the reality of the country’s wars. Parents in other countries might not enjoy the same luxury. In Syria and North Korea, violence, oppression and torture are daily realities. We can’t afford to bullshit kids about what’s going on in the world.
When the young-adult series Animorphs came to an end in May 2001, just months before 9/11, fans had decidedly mixed reactions. Many young readers felt the last book was a downer. Author Katherine Alice Applegate responded to the fan outcry with an astoundingly blunt letter telling kids that the messy, complicated ending was exactly the point.
“So, you don’t like the way our little fictional war came out? You don’t like Rachel dead and Tobias shattered and Jake guilt-ridden? You don’t like that one war simply led to another? Fine. Pretty soon you’ll all be of voting age, and of draft age,” she wrote. “So when someone proposes a war, remember that even the most necessary wars, even the rare wars where the lines of good and evil are clear and clean, end with a lot of people dead, a lot of people crippled and a lot of orphans, widows and grieving parents.”
After 17 years of war it’s time we begin talking to kids of all ages with the same candor. A show like The Clone Wars can help.