There’s strife in every family. The kids’ faction is at a terrible disadvantage in strength and wisdom, so they have to fight sneaky. The analogy with guerrilla war is obvious, which gives me a chance to mix up family life and a book review.

It’s like this · A lot of what parents say to kids is unwelcome, whether positive (“Do your homework”, “Eat your salad”) or negative (“Don’t hit your brother”, “Stop throwing the noodles”).

So, for a kid who doesn’t want to eat the salad and does want to throw the noodles, there’s really no upside in listening to grown-ups. Modern parents, trained to prize Quality Time with their progeny, doggedly try for sincere dialogue on the virtues of salad and inappropriateness of flying noodles. But that’s silly; why on earth would an otherwise-sensible kid who wants to throw noodles welcome a meeting of minds on the subject with someone who’s more experienced and stronger?

Thus the maddening practice, among young children, of refusing to answer simple questions, not hearing polite and reasonable requests for behavior modification, needing to go the bathroom when your argument is nearing its forceful but loving climax, and finding lawyerly comebacks: “I was already reaching for the fork when you shouted at me, now I’m too upset!”

History · The World Wars were sort of symmetrical; great armies maneuvering, with elbow room, for geographical and strategic advantage. Since then it’s been asymmetric. Which is to say, rich white people making geopolitical arguments by way of overwhelming battle hardware. Which, oddly, we regularly lose.

Guerilla warfare is the only kind of warfare that’s left. The canonical one, for my generation at least, remains Vietnam, because we knew people who were there, saw it on TV, read it in the papers. And in books.

This is actually a book review · I mean Dispatches, 1977 non-fiction by Michael Herr.

I was feeling grumpy about wrangling with kids and it reminded me of something in the book, so I got it off the shelf to look that up and ended up losing much of two nights’ sleep reading it again. You should read it too.

On the cover there’s a plug from John le Carré: “The best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.” I’d go along with that.

Note: If you don’t already know the history or background or Big Picture of the Vietnam War, this book won’t teach you. But it will take you there and introduce you to the people — well, the Americans — who fought it and the experiences they had. Which, even now, almost 50 years later, are mind-bending in their horror and beauty.

If you want the other side’s narrative I recommend The Sorrow of War by Bảo Ninh. It’s not as good as Herr’s book, but reading Dispatches might make you want to reach for it.

A glace at today’s news teaches that the lessons of Vietnam remain, by and large, un-learned. Anyhow, I was looking for that quotation and I found two of them:

It was enough to make an American commander sink to his knees and plead “Oh God! Just once, let it be our way. We have the strength, give us the terms!

In its outlines, the promise was delicious: Victory! A vision of as many as 40,000 of them out in the open, fighting it out on our terms, fighting for once like men, fighting to no avail.

Reminds me of me and the kids.

I feel a little bit bad featuring those out-takes, because Dispatches is full of paragraphs that overflow with terror and grace. Anyone with an interest in the world as it is, and who likes good writing, ought to read this.

Back to your kids · No, they don’t want to kill you or expel you, as America’s guerrilla opponents did. But they don’t want to come out in the open and fight on your terms, either.

I am of course a bad parent; I gather that there are some who never struggle with their kids, because they have the knack of making them see reason. I’m not alone, though.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Grahame Grieve (Jan 17 2015, at 11:31)

I have 2 daughters. One, I could reason with from an earlier age. The other plays all the guerrilla ploys and has from as soon as she could talk. In vain do I point out that she would have it better if she didn't. So it's not the parent, it's the kid.


From: Mahlen (Jan 17 2015, at 13:42)

Dispatches is a gorgeous and amazing and harrowing book. I know of no way to convince people to read it except to say, you'll thank yourself for doing so.


From: John Cowan (Jan 17 2015, at 23:56)

As sometimes who can sometimes get a loved one to see reason (adult or child, doesn't matter much, we're all that kid when we're upset), it's more like inventing a koan, saying something spontaneous that knocks the other person's ego into a tri-cornered hat. But you can't (at least I can't, I'm not an abbot) do it consistently, it just comes out or it doesn't.


From: Brian Reischl (Feb 11 2015, at 08:02)

For a different, but fascinating, view on the Vietnam war I would strongly recommend "The Killing Zone" [1]. It starts a little slow, but stick with it. The second half makes it all worthwhile.

I did try to read Dispatches based on your recommendation. I had a hard time with the flow-of-consciousness, drug-induced-confusion aspects of it and ended up sending it back to the library early. Perhaps it was just a bit much after the matter-of-fact tone of Killing Zone. I'll try again someday.

[1] -


From: Kris Obertas (Feb 19 2015, at 14:53)

I grew up reading about the Vietnam conflict, then war, in Time magazine and had a fascination with the history and accounts that followed after 1975. One book (two actually) I reread every few years are by Al Santoli. The first "Everything We Had" is a collection of oral history from the perspective of U.S. veterans. The followup told stories from both (all?) sides. You might be able to track down a copy!


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