War Games: Why Little Boys Should Play with Toy Guns

War is hell, as General Sherman rightly said. But if war is hell, then is playing at war any different from playing at hell? Is it all one, to give our children wooden swords or toy rifles, and to give our children little pitchforks, plastic shovels for fire and brimstone, and fake instruments of torture? Is the smoke of a cap gun to be likened to the smoke of Satan? Do the little devils really become such, in their imaginations at least, when they play at war?

I ask these questions because it seems to me that war toys, if they are bad, must be very bad; and the fact that they are not that bad shows that they are not bad at all. My mention of hell is not wholly facetious. There is good reason why war is hell; for hell is war. And because of this, the first thing a Christian must get straight about, when thinking about war toys, is the existence of hell.

The Cosmic War

At the basis of reality is God, who is Peace and Justice. Yet at the very next level is war; for the very first of created beings, the most magnificent angel, the summit of the created order, rebelled against God. This rebellion was met, not by acquiescence, not by compromise, not by negotiations, but by a sudden, and strict, military action on the part of God, otherwise known as damnation. Damnation is a warlike action against the devil that continues into eternity: just as God’s conservation of something in existence is a continuous creative operation, so damnation is a continuous military operation. It might justly be imagined that the military request for identification, “Friend or foe?” is used at the gates of heaven. To be damned is to have God as a foe, because one has chosen to remain a foe of God. No one can be a “mere acquaintance” of God: one is either a friend or a foe. Indeed, the damned find all of existence warring against them.

There is in fact a connection between a crude sort of pacifism and the denial that a good God could will the existence of a hell. For pacifism is sometimes motivated by the view that force should never be used in the service of good. On this assumption, military force used to remedy an injustice becomes as immoral as the military force used to bring about the injustice—for (it will be urged) the injustice could have been tolerated, or overlooked, so that the choice not to do so is a choice to initiate a war. Yet by a similar argument one might conclude that God is as much to blame for the sufferings of the demons in hell as the demons are themselves, since it was God’s choice not to tolerate but rather to suppress their rebellion.

What is our role in the cosmic war? Salvation history can in fact be read as a military history. The human front—the war as it is carried out on earth—was opened up as a consequence of the Rebel’s malicious desire to destroy something precious to God, i.e., human beings made in God’s image. Our race’s reaction, indeed, was originally one of unwitting complicity with the enemy. But after an invasion in Bethlehem (where many innocents perished) which initiated a counterattack, and a decisive battle outside of Jerusalem, God emerged the victor. Yet although the battle has been decided in general, and the enemy himself routed, each human being’s life remains a matter of deciding whether to continue assisting the Rebel’s hopeless fight, or to join the invading forces and contribute to the battle of liberation. And just as war is waged for the sake of peace, so the struggle of life is to be undergone for the sake of eternal peace in heaven.

Hence it is that “the life of man upon earth is a war-fare,” as Scripture says (Job 7:1); the human condition essentially contains a warlike aspect. And thus St. Paul urges us to “take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13).

Philosophies which focus on the necessity of struggle and war are reflections of the truth which Christianity fully contains and have an appeal precisely because they resemble the truth. “All things arise by strife,” Heraclitus wrote, and “War is father of all, king of all: some it shows as gods, some as men; some it makes slaves, some free.” A similar philosophy of Kampf finds expression in Hegel’s notion of dialectic—progress through conflict—as well as in Nietzsche’s vision of human greatness: “The man who has renounced war has renounced a grand life.” It also figures centrally in existentialist philosophy, for example, in Jaspers’ notions of “radical evil” and “ultimate situations.” When Christians ignore or deny the military character of the Christian life, they open themselves up to the charge of practicing a religion which is both emasculated and bourgeois; they also provide a foothold for misguided philosophical views, such as Nietzsche’s, which cannot but value military virtue inappropriately and for the wrong reasons.

Military Virtue

Thus, since the Christian life essentially contains a warlike aspect, the military virtues are essential to it. By the military virtues I mean: courage, firmness, self-discipline, endurance, perseverance, obedience, and camaraderie. Now these virtues are, I maintain, imaginatively acquired by children when they play at war. To explain what I mean by this, it is necessary to say something briefly about play.

Play, of course, has various purposes. One purpose is purely instrumental. For example, suppose that playing with video games, since it improves hand-eye coordination, is helpful for learning how to use carpenter’s tools at some later age. Thus, a father who wanted his son to learn carpentry at a later age might give him video games to play with. Sometimes, however, play has more than an instrumental value because it bears some likeness to, and thus is a type of, some activity that is inherently valuable. For example, children’s art is valuable instrumentally, because it teaches them to draw better, but also intrinsically, because children’s art is itself a kind of art, and art is intrinsically valuable.

Another example would be children who play at being parents by cradling and taking care of their dolls. Such play actually resembles the virtuous activity they are playing at and hence shares in its intrinsic goodness. Here the instrumental and intrinsic value of the play is in fact linked: a child’s playing with dolls helps him to be a good parent later, precisely because playing at dolls is an instance (of sorts) of the things that good parents do. When children play with dolls, they exercise and develop their moral imagination with regard to the virtuous actions of parents; furthermore, they rehearse the emotions which good parents feel.

Playing at war is intrinsically valuable, since it resembles the actions characteristic of military virtue; and as a consequence it is instrumentally valuable, as helping to develop the moral imagination and the emotions needed for military virtue—noble aspiration, audacity, confidence, abhorrence of evil, and feelings of comradeship. Hence war toys are good, as being useful for an intrinsically good activity. Yet the argument presented here would require that war toys allow scope for the imagination, just as other toys should. They should be simple and somewhat abstract, expressing only the essential character of the weapon they are meant to represent.

Note that a child who plays at war will have no trouble later understanding, for example, what a just war is. The wars children play at are not frivolous: they have a moral character. The bad guys know that their cause is bad and understand that they ought to be repulsed; the good guys use proportional force, have a right intention, and do not reciprocate aggression. Normal children playing at war do not play at killing civilians or committing acts of terror.

There is some psychological evidence that playing at war gives a child an outlet for aggression, so that those who do not play with toy swords and guns are more likely to be actually hostile towards their playmates. And some psychologists have surmised that, through playing at war, children conquer their anxieties and fears: children can, in effect, convert their felt anxieties into an imaginary enemy and dispatch with them through play. But that playing at war seems to arise naturally, without prompting: children will of course pretend that a stick is a sword or rifle, even if war toys are not given to them. So if the psychological views are correct, playing at war would be a remedy provided by nature for aggressive impulses and anxieties.


I cannot see that any of the reasons typically given for taking war toys from children are persuasive. Some people seem to think that the mere possession of a weapon is bad, hence having a toy weapon would be bad, since this would involve imagining that one owned a weapon (and presumably imagining something bad is itself bad). Never mind that the apostles on some occasions carried swords (Matthew 26:51, Luke 22:38), so possession of a weapon cannot be bad. This view seems to rest on a rather crude view of what a toy is. Must a child playing with a match-box car imagine that he owns a car?

Admittedly, he must at least imagine that there is a good use for a car. Suppose, therefore, that there is no good use for a weapon: playing with war toys, then, would be objectionable because it would involve the false notion that a weapon can have a good use against human beings.

However, weapons do have good uses against human beings: they can be used in acts of self-defense and in defensive wars against aggressors. That such acts are licit is Catholic teaching; it is not open for a Catholic to hold otherwise. It is, of course, open for a Catholic voluntarily to adopt, for himself, a pacifist stance and foreswear all use of force. But the argument for taking war toys from children involves the stronger, and unjustified, position that weapons cannot be used licitly by anyone. Even a pacifist parent who wanted his child, when an adult, to join him in his pacifism, would do well not to take the child’s war toys away. For to do so would attack the child’s freedom, since it would wrongly imply that the position the parent has freely adopted is required of all. Moreover, the child would lack the occasion, provided by playing at war, for growing in the military virtues—virtues which are not optional for Christians, and which are perhaps needed by a pacifist even more than by others.

Note that the fact that children almost universally play at war shows that war is not in every case evil. For children do not play at what is intrinsically evil. Children do not play at being abortionists or serial killers, but they do play at being soldiers.

Romanticizing War

It might be retorted that, even if it is licit to use weapons in self-defense and in a just war, still, these uses of weapons have the character of a necessity: a just war is a “necessary evil.” Yet there is an undeniable tendency in human beings to romanticize war—a tendency which leads them to wage wars before they are strictly necessary and to overlook the horrors of war. Playing at war, it might be urged, can only confirm this unfortunate tendency towards romanticizing war—indeed, perhaps it is its very source.

In reply, it should be said that it is in fact good to be able to view a necessity romantically. This is a familiar truth of human experience. Why not dance with the broom when you are sweeping? Why not sing while you are giving someone a shave? If one is able to view a necessity such as war romantically, then so much the better. Furthermore, much of children’s play, and not merely playing at war, involves necessities. Changing a diaper, for example, is in real life a necessity, with horrors of its own. A child playing at changing a diaper will not, of course, understand the work and mess which this can involve. Yet we do not forbid children from playing at changing diapers, for we recognize that it is good, as a child, to romanticize changing a diaper, and good, as an adult, to change dirty diapers romantically.

In leaving out aspects of reality, children’s toys and children’s play do not thereby deny those aspects of reality. A toy steam shovel does not spew out scalding steam; it has no lethal moving parts; it will not, if misdirected, maim and destroy with awesome force. Yet a parent who gives such a toy to his child does not imply that these things are lacking in actual steam shovels, nor would we expect a man who has grown to maturity to think that they are. And if he did, the problem would clearly not be in the toy; one couldn’t plausibly claim that it was toy steam shovels which taught him to regard real steam shovels with fantastic inappropriateness.

In any case, as was noted above, the necessary character of war is not entirely absent from children’s play, since children do not play at frivolous wars. Even supposing that the “bad guys” in a game “started a war for the fun of it,” that would be understood as part of the reason why they’re bad guys (“Of course they started a war for the fun of it—they’re the bad guys”), and the good guys would then find it necessary to put down playfully this feigned moral dissipation.

Living by the Sword

Some people seem to oppose playing at war as some-thing that inculcates violence. Perhaps the idea is that a game “teaches a lesson” and that something a game of war teaches is that problems can easily be solved through violence. Yet why must it teach this? Why doesn’t it teach, for example, that aggression is costly, since it justifiably provokes resistance? For all we know, countless potential Hitlers have been swayed from a career of aggression by learning, through playing at war as a child, the stern measures one’s peers would swiftly take in response to any aggression. Perhaps bullies and tyrants would flourish in a society where war toys are banned.

Or maybe the idea is that there is a continuity between playing at war and actual war: to play at war would be to place one’s foot on a slippery slope of hostility; military escalation begins in the backyards of a peace-loving people. Yet there is no such continuity: playing at war comes to an end when a fight begins. A war game is a cooperative endeavor; it involves the practice of friendship. There must be peace to play at war. It would be absurd to point to children whose quarrel has just brought their game of swords to an end and say: “Ah yes, their play has reached its natural fruition; it has led to hostility, just as one would expect.”

There are, of course, features of a child’s life that do have war as their fruit. Possessiveness leads to war; selfishness leads to war; the fantasy of complete self-determination (the “autonomy” of the modern liberal) leads to war. A parent in early nineteenth-century Virginia who taught his child that there was a right to own slaves inculcated war. A parent today who teaches his child that there is a right to abort a child in the womb inculcates war: he sets his child against the principle of cooperation which human beings must adopt to live together in peace.

There is, of course, a culture of violence in this country, like the culture of pornography, and closely linked to it. Both are marked by a degradation of the human person and a denial of human dignity. It would be unwise to let a child have a toy that was associated with this culture of violence, or linked to a product line or fictional character associated with it, such as Rambo dolls. But this problem can be avoided simply by allowing children to play only with war toys that are simple and that give scope for the imagination.

Some parents have something like an aesthetic repulsion to guns. In some cases this repulsion has a serious origin: for example, a relative was murdered by a hand gun, and so all guns, even hunting guns, seem repulsive. This reaction is significant, yet since it is not necessary to view a gun in this way, this is a subjective matter of taste, which should not, if at all avoidable, be erected into a standard for others. It can be as misguided for a parent absolutely to forbid a child from doing what is not wrong, as it is to allow a child to do what is wrong. If, in particular, a parent’s tastes are proposed as an absolute standard, then there is the danger that the child will later reject as merely a matter of taste something that is in fact a matter of objective morality.

Other Difficulties

If plastic pistols are to be forbidden, where does one draw the line? Chess is a war game: all introductory books of chess remark on how the pieces represent opposing armed forces, and many experts recommend that a child first learn chess strategy by thinking of his pieces as a general might command an army. Should we then forbid our children from playing chess? Or can they play chess, so long as they use pieces that lack all suggestion of the military (difficult to do for knights and rooks), and avoid books which explain chess as a stylized representation of war? But then we must go further and keep children who play chess from learning about its history, otherwise they might, in spite of our precautions, come to think of chess as a war game.

And what of toys which have functions like   weapons? Water guns, for example, represent guns, and have a similar action; likewise the bow and arrow made by the Nurf company. Furthermore, there are many games that have an appeal, it would seem, because of their resemblance to the use of weapons—darts, for example, which has a “target” and “hits” and “misses.” Presumably all of these must be banned.

An adult’s proscribing of toy weapons attacks a child’s robust sense of reality, manifest in the child’s ability to distinguish reality from play. It is, after all, only actual injury, death, and destruction which make war an evil. What could possibly be wrong with war, if these are removed, except conflict—which as we have seen is also absent in a war game. My five-year-old son, John Henry, once looked at me with incredulity when I told him that a guest did not want his sons playing with the toy guns in our household, and said, “But why, Daddy? They’re not real.” He saw that no one could be hurt with a fake gun, and he wondered whether adults couldn’t see that as well. Imagine, as an analogy, a parent who insisted that his children always drive on the road and not get into accidents when playing with toy cars.

Forbidding war toys imposes an instrumental view of play upon the world of the child. It is the intrusion of the ideological upon the natural. And it must, of course, be an intrusion, .since a consistent parent would have to watch carefully over intentions and thoughts and not merely externals. A stick can quickly be turned into a sword or gun by a child’s imagination. Yet that sort of mischief would have to be forbidden. John Henry once picked up, of all things, a furry stuffed animal (a baby seal, in fact), inverted it, held it out like a pistol, and shouted, with a big grin across his face, “Stick ’em up, Mommy!” The pacifist thought police would have had us turn this good fun into an offense and his cheerfulness into shame.

Surely, God delights in the way that children turn war into an object of play. Surely, the fact that children play at war is a sign that war is not an ultimate evil; that its horror is passing; that the last word is peace. Children beat swords into plowshares by turning plowshares into swords. If there were eternal conflict, rather than eternal peace, then it would be inappropriate to play at war. If God did not convert evil into a greater good, if the devil were the victor, then playing at war would be grotesque. It would be as though lambs played at the impending slaughter awaiting them. But the war has been already won, and the death of the Lamb is a redemption not a betrayal, a victory rather than a defeat. That our children have made war playful is meant to signify to us that, in the end, our war on earth is playful. War is hellish, but playing at war is heavenly; and from heaven we will laugh as we sing, “The strife is o’er, the battle won. Alleluia!”


Michael Pakaluk is a philosopher who lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, with his wife and their eight children. His most recent book is Mary's Voice in the Gospel According to St. John (Regnery Gateway).

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