1960s >> 1967 >> no-756-august-1967

Toying with Soldiers

In the days when she was a member of the Opposition, Barbara Castle made something of a name for herself by launching a crusade for the abolition of the penny charge for ladies’ lavatories. In the 1945/50 Parliament, Jimmy Hudson was famous for his passion for temperance reform. More lately, Leo Abse has become well known as an advocate of easier divorce. Thus do Labour Members, who call themselves Socialists, busy themselves with trivial, although newsworthy, adjustments to the capitalist system.


The latest in this undistinguished line is Mrs. Anne Kerr, the Member for Rochester and Chatham, who on July 4 last moved in the House that “. . . the sale, manufacture, import, export and advertisement of war toys in the press and magazines and on television should be banned.”


Now there was once a theory, well favoured among the Left Wing, that the cause of war was to be found in the conspiracies of the great armaments kings. Mrs. Kerr, of course, was only blaming the firms who make toy armaments. Perhaps it was safer that way; she was not, after all, pressing for the abolition of war itself, nor even of the weapons of war—only of plastic toys that go pop and sparkle and rat tat tat.


Predictably, the motion had the Parliamentary correspondents dipping their pens in laughing gas, and provided a golden chance for every amateur psychologist in the Commons. A thinly attended House heard some novel theories on the cause of war and of social violence. Then they threw out the motion and got down to more serious business.


The whole episode was fatuous enough and only deserves any attention because so many of the false ideas MPs proudly paraded are widely held also by the people who vote for them:


Destruction to many people is fun. At a church fete, for example, they will pay sixpence or a shilling to break crockery. (Mr. Tilney).
. . .  a dangerous motion because it opens a door to legislation to control the right of individuals and their children to think. (Mr. Onslow).


The best thing to do here is to begin at the beginning. It seems too obvious, but so many arguments about armaments ignore the fact that they exist only because war is an accepted way of settling society’s disputes. There has been a steady progression of the destructive power and efficiency of weapons; Mrs. Kerr complained about toy “guns, bombs, flame-throwers and booby traps” but these are among the gentler instruments at the disposal of the war makers.


Let us go on and ask why society tolerates the persistence of war. Here we can find a clue in the reply Mrs. Kerr received from Mr. Darling, Minister of State of the Board of Trade, who said that


. . . the United Kingdom toy industry was one of our most flourishing industries and last year exported £16 million worth of toys.
. . . Generally speaking, the Government wanted United Kingdom toys to be sold increasingly overseas . . .  (Daily Telegraph 4/7/67)


Now this does not apply only to toys, of course; there are all sorts of British industries which are exporting their products, and which the government would like to see increase their overseas trade. But the British government is not the only one with this idea, and British industry is not the only one engaged in an export trade. The capitalist world is, in fact, a mass of competing firms, states, combinations of states, all struggling for what in the end they hope will be some sort of economic supremacy. Sometimes this rivalry can be settled by a trade agreement or some other kind of pact. Sometimes it can be settled only by war.


Under capitalism, then, wars are unavoidable — which means that armed forces and weapons are necessary. But if it is all inevitable and necessary to capitalism, it is also extremely unpleasant — terrifying, dirty, obscene, brutalising. What is more natural, then, than that governments should try to hide the truth by embellishing the military man’s life with false glamour?


Soldiers, sailors and airmen who do their grisly job efficiently are not simply successful men—capitalist society regards them as heroes. This line is pushed hard by the Services when they are advertising for recruits:


Don’t talk to Peter Cobb about hotted-up Minis. He drives this nuclear submarine. Wouldn’t you like to?


The glamour propaganda is aimed at young people and of course it has its effect on children. A child’s life is full of dreams and expectations, most of them modelled on the adult world. If his parents regard a killer in uniform as a hero, the child will do the same-even more so. When a kid is playing soldiers, perhaps with the toys Mrs. Kerr thinks so odious, he is acting out what he hopes will be his heroic future.


But this is not the only aspect of life in which the kids imitate their elders and in which they prepare themselves for growing up under capitalism. The same shops which sell plastic machine guns probably also sell toy Post Offices and shops, Monopoly sets and so on. These games teach children some of the commercial facts of capitalism — that goods are made to be bought and sold, that survival is a matter of making money, that success goes to the man who can pull off the clever deal.


War toys teach children that organised killing and violence is an accepted part of society today. And since this has its roots in the economic basis of capitalism, there are as many objections to the sale of, say, toy money as there can be to the sale of toy flame throwers. Indeed, the fact that a child spends some happy hours picking off his mates with a plastic machine gun does not place him irretrievably on the path of being a military murderer, any more than winning at Monopoly will make him a future property tycoon.


As long as its people are content that it should be so, it is capitalism which maps out their future. The adults of capitalism fight its wars, and support the whole system which gives rise to them. They do this not because when they were children they played with toy soldiers, but because they are misled into believing that capitalism, with its property rights, its economic rivalries, its wars, is the best of all possible human societies.


No capitalist party—certainly not the Labour Party—ever does anything to end this massive and fundamental deception. Let us be kind to Mrs. Kerr and say that she is muddle-headed. But not every M.P. was so blind; the Member for St. Marylebone, for example, was almost caught out in approaching the heart of the problem:


You will not end wars by stopping children playing at soldiers, although you probably would stop children playing at soldiers if you prevented wars.


It is a rather unnerving experience, to be agreeing with Quintin Hogg. It probably won’t happen ever again — but strange things can go on, when fishes fly and forests walk, when there is blood on the moon or the House of Commons tries to put capitalism to rights.