War Stories: Vietnam and the Loss of Innocence

Today our children are wearing little red poppies on their school uniforms for Remembrance Day (or, in the US, Veterans’ Day). At school, from the wee ones up through the older classes, they held two minutes of silence at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in remembrance of the cessation of hostilities on Armistice Day, as it was originally called. Once we came home, I read the poem “Flanders Fields” by John McCrae to them.  I was fine until the last stanza, and of course, the minute my voice cracked, the kids craned their necks and started peering into my face to see if Mommy was, in fact, going to shed a tear, and of course that made everything worse.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

A great deal of my parenting philosophy is contained in the bit about passing the torch, and that’s the reason for Storybookland. The difficulty I keep facing as the kids grow is this: some stories are really difficult to tell. How do you explain to the wonderful, innocent child you brought into the world why we have wars and the outcome of those wars? Because if you are a child whose daddy is a soldier, you don’t have the luxury of waiting until you’re older to find out about tyrants, oppression, and rows upon rows of gravestones marking the resting places of very young men and women. Visiting Normandy this summer was such a powerful experience and provided a huge gateway into that subject; the D-Day ceremonies filled me with such pride in the men and women who freed Europe from a horrible regime. But there have been other wars also.

When Zach and I first discussed the War Stories series of pictures a couple of years ago, it was strictly as an art project. Our goal was to portray that every hideous, horrible act of war was someone’s little boy or girl and every last victim of atrocity was once a child. The overarching question for us was “When was innocence lost?” Vietnam was an obvious first landing place, and we came up with the idea to re-create some of the more iconic or familiar images from that time. As the idea grew and evolved, we channeled it in different directions, because the stories were easier to explain to the kids: Joan of Arc, Napoleon, D-Day, etc. But the black-and-white images of Vietnam continued gnawing at me. How do you tell and portray it with children? Just looking at the images made me feel uncomfortable because they became incongruous when I replaced the faces with those of my children. Plus there was a difficulty I faced in trying to guide the conversation I’d have to have with them if I went through with this project. It’s probably fairly obvious that we aren’t the anti-war crowd, but I don’t think anyone can look at Vietnam without a feeling that war is devastating, and I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t want to shield my children from that a little longer.

When I finally sat down to reflect on it, I realized this: children are not pets. You get a dog or cat so you can love and pet and feed and coddle it as long as it lives; it will never leave you, and it will always be “there for you,” because it has no higher calling to fulfill than your own personal enjoyment. Children are different. Of course we still get to nurture and protect them for a time, but there is also a very purposeful path we must travel if they will ever learn to take responsibility, fight for what is right, stand up for truth, and eventually fly away from the nest on their own wings. Watching the horrifying millennial meltdown following the election this week has confirmed to me that a whole heck of a lot of parents in America literally treated their children like dogs and never prepared them to be strong adults who could tackle the world without a leash and a bag for their poo. And I. Can’t. Even.

My goal as a mom is to raise my children to be soldiers. Perhaps not (and many days I say HOPEFULLY not) American soldiers, but certainly soldiers for justice, always soldiers for truth, and above all, soldiers for God. Always. I’ve determined that, for us, the best way to help them survive and overcome hardship is to introduce it to them in an controlled and safe environment. And so I tell the stories, be they happy or dark; to teach bravery and strength; and to always, always try to do what is right and love your neighbor.

For this photo shoot, we sat down with the children and pulled up dozens of war photos, both pictures we would eventually simulate with them and others that were harder and darker. We explained what was happening in each picture, and, when possible, we told them the stories of the people pictured. Then we let them ask questions and answered them as best we could, even though the inevitable “Why is war hell, Mommy?” came sooner rather than later.

On this Remembrance Day, we hold the torch and keep the faith with all veterans of foreign wars, and we’d love to share this project:

Finding Storybookland Vietnam

Finding Storybookland Vietnam

Finding Storybookland Vietnam War is Hell

Finding Storybookland Vietnam

Finding Storybookland Vietnam

Finding Storybookland Vietnam

Finding Storybookland Vietnam

Finding Storybookland Vietnam

Finding Storybookland Vietnam

Finding Storybookland Vietnam

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