Last Wednesday, I was walking to grab a quick bite to eat near my apartment and was caught behind a group of three students on lunch break from the nearby high school. They were walking abreast and I couldn’t squeeze by, but could hear their conversation.
“Yeah, he needs to shut his mouth,” exclaimed the kid on the left.
“Man, I want to fight him so bad.” The second student responded, making a quick punching motion.
The kid on the right jumped in. “Dude, my uncle Rich showed me this sick move. You pick a guy up,” he raised his arms, “And then drop him on a bench… or fire hydrant.” We passed a hydrant and he motioned like he was dropping a body on it. “That breaks his fucking back, man.”
His buddies nodded in awe.
He continued. “Yeah, he learned that shit in Vietnam, man. They show you all kinds of crazy moves, like how to twist a dude’s neck or break a dude’s knee. He showed me this other move where if you take a guy’s wrist….”
I ducked into my sandwich shop to get some lunch, having heard enough.
I didn’t fault the boys. They were probably sixteen. At that age, most young men are figuring out math and fornication. They’re caught in that limbo where they know they have to make sense of life but can’t quite figure out how. So that uncertainty, and a plethora of hormones, drive up emotions and give teenagers their reputation for insubordination and arrogance. But in moments of clarity, they do turn to the rest of the village for guidance. My dad taught me how to deal with homework, my cousins taught me how to deal with girls, my uncles taught me about baseball, etc. The people around us are the ones that shape the way we grow.
So at first, I thought what awful parents and families these kids had. Uncle Rich had taken the time to teach his nephew how to hurt someone in a very serious way. And, if they were still a part of this boy’s life, his parents had condoned it to a degree. Is that time together not better spent shooting hoops or giving unsanctioned sex-ed lessons? That’s what uncles are for, right? Uncle Rich had forgone that time together to glorify the act of inducing paraplegia. How could anyone want to pass that information to the next generation?
That’s what was taught to him at the same age. When Uncle Rich was a teenager, he looked up to a group of alpha males and this was the guidance he received. But it wasn’t from his family; it was from his drill sergeant and the rest of the Army. The alpha of alpha males taught him to assert himself, to defend himself, to defend his friends. That’s how you became a man. That’s what uncle Rich knew.
At the age of eighteen, he couldn’t stand back and realize that these lessons were a thread in our country’s complex fabric of foreign policy and military interventions. So he was taught how to shoot a gun, cross barbwire, break a man’s wrist and wove those lessons into his own values. And like any senior member of the family to a younger generation, he passed the lessons on.
Today, the news is wrought with headlines on veterans of war. Debilitating medical injuries, foreclosed houses, PTSD, the litany of postwar effects on our soldiers is long and often sad. It is an incredibly important debate and requires ethical solutions. But these are immediate problems with solutions that are immediately applicable. Forgotten in the discussion are the downstream effects.
One of the kids who walked in front of me is going to commit an act of violence. We’ll read about it on the third page of our local paper and shake our heads. Some may even wonder aloud, to our spouse or friend, why so many teenagers resort to violence and we’ll probably blame music and television. Perhaps a stint in the Army would shake that out of them. They could learn something there.
But maybe they already did.