In his harder drinking days, my father was the kind of alpha American who regularly road raged in the church parking lot. He was aggressive even in his decency. When I was a teenager, he liked to wait up for me and force me to debate various philosophical issues meant to draw forth my character flaws. He was soused and so this generally meant I’d be called upon to employ the strategy of waiting it out or obfuscating my real personality. I respected him and so I occasionally became embroiled in intense circular narratives. It wasn’t until my thirties that I realized the average drunk isn’t waiting for the right answer as he circles around again; he’s merely circling.
In any case, I once made the mistake of wearing a shirt emblazoned with a peace sign when I went out and I was wearing it when I came home to find him sitting on the couch in the blue light of the television. He asked me if I was a pacifist. This was during that awkward mid-90s revival of Woodstock-ean aesthetics. Saving the earth was a thing many high school lockers emphasized by means of deliberately placed stickers. My wardrobe also included a tee shirt featuring a caterpillar in the shape of a question mark. In other words, I considered myself an intellectual, but was probably kind of a shit.
I said, “I don’t believe in war.”
He said, “What does that mean?”
And I said there was never a good reason to kill people. And then he asked me what I would do if they came into our house and violently murdered my mother and my younger siblings in front of me.
“Would you do nothing?” he asked. “Would you give them the peace sign?”
I asked him who was going to come into our house and kill us and he said no one was coming. “This is a thought experiment,” he said. “You need to know what you would do so that when it happens you can act with purity.”
I thought about it for a while. And then I said something like this:
What I would probably do if people came into our home and murdered my mother and my siblings in front of me would be to track “them” down and kill “them” in roughly the same way. And then, because I was still pissed, I’d track down “their” families and kill “their” parents and “their” siblings in even more terrible ways. “They” wouldn’t be around to see this happen, but I’d still be making a point, which would be “don’t fuck with the likes of me.”
In any case, I’d then track down “their” cousins and “their” friends and “their” coworkers—assuming “they” had one or all three—and do the same only more violent. By this point “they’d” probably have a pretty good idea of what was going on and so they might try to go into hiding or launch a counter-attack against me. So, I’d probably disappear for a while and let “them” think it was all over. I’d get word out that my new mantra was live and let live. I’d let people see me going around in my peace shirt again.
Once “they” were mostly relaxed, I’d go in and kill as many of “them” as I could as nonchalantly as I could. Like, no-big-deal killing. Like, I’ve-been-killing-for-a-while-and-so-I’m-totally-immune-to-any-of-the-moral-qualms-you-might-expect killing. And I guess I’d go on and on killing until I started killing people who weren’t even necessarily “them” but maybe kind of seemed like “them” and so, on some level (OK, probably just associatively) had it coming. These “them” would be so easy to kill and there would really be no one trying to stop me, so probably “they” really didn’t deserve to live. At least not like “we” do. And since I’m basically a killing machine now, I’d probably start killing indiscriminately. And if I had access to a bomb, I’d probably drop it just to have it over and done with.
What my father did, after I was done saying all of this to him, was something he did frequently then and still does when he’s not sure what in the hell has happened in our conversation: he employs a ruthless pivot. On this occasion, he turned his attention back to the TV and lifted his drink. “Your mother,” he said, “is in quite the mood today.”
And then we talked about whatever sport was happening on the screen and, at some point, he fell asleep in his chair. And that was the last time I ever talked to him about war.