Sticks and Stones

Jay in the army with his rifle.

Intro: I held this post a few days…in Tucson, Obama had made the case for civility far better than I ever could. Still, I like this story, hope you do too.

My husband, Jay, and his brother-in-law Herb were both drafted during the Korean War. In basic training, each was issued an M-1 rifle and a bayonet.

As they tell the story now, both their drill sergeants performed the same ritual. Each would yell out to the men,

What is the spirit of the bayonet?”

And all the recruits would lunge forward, bayonets mounted on their rifles, gutting yet imaginary foes, and yelling the response in unison:

“To kill. To kill.”

Everyone except Herb. He lunged forward with the others, but only mouthed those offensive words, unable and unwilling to utter them out loud, hoping the sergeant wouldn’t notice. The Herb I’ve come to know is unfailingly gentle and kind. No doubt the army was wise, back then, to assign him to a desk job.

It’s the army’s job to train people to use the weapons they’re issued. That can’t be easy. The army must realize that a man’s heart and mind have to be adjusted before he’ll be able to plunge a sharp bayonet into another human being.

So they use the power of words.

Do any of us really believe that “words can never hurt us”? Don’t all of us live with the hurt inflicted by a sharp-tongued relative or friend? Were none of us ever influenced by the words of another, especially when uttered passionately?

Public figures who use violent words and violent imagery absolutely don’t mean for us to shoot political opponents. They want higher ratings or they want our votes.

But I for one will watch other programs; I’ll read other writings; I’ll vote for other people.


My husband, Jay, has asked me to add a note to this post. If I’ve described Herb, who wouldn’t utter the words, as gentle, how does that make Jay look–and every other young man who did what the drill sergeant told him to do? Let me assure you that Jay is also a gentle, good man.  That’s why I married him.


Copyright by Margaret French

5 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones

  1. Thanks for this story Margeret – a beautiful reflection and love the image of Herb mouthing the words.

    I agree with you about the power of words. Just think what powerful speakers have been able to turn countries, or books that have mobilised thousands.

    This microcosm of reflection is no less powerful for its scale.

  2. I’m sure Jay will tell you that what he is holding in the picture is not a gun, but a rifle. Thirty five years ago someone told me about how his drill sergeant humiliated the basic-trainee who made the mistake of referring to his rifle as a gun. After thirty five years I no longer shudder at the thought of that story, but I still wonder how it affected the teenager who was forced to humiliate himself repeatedly for an hour.

    I’m glad Herb wasn’t caught.

    We’re all capable of violence, and we’re all capable of great kindness. We make our choices about what kind of person we want to be, and how we want to influence others.

  3. Jacob, thanks for your thoughtful reply. And, yes, I changed the caption. Jay is now holding his “rifle” not his “gun.”

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