I read Roger McGrath’s engaging memoir, “Boys Will Be Boys” (Views, March), with real pleasure but found the skeptic in me thoroughly awakened afterward.  McGrath offers a surprisingly romanticized vision of schoolboy fighting, which he regards as a healthy expression of boys’ natural competitiveness and, indeed, as a key institution, a defining ritual in an older, tougher, more virtuous America.  Fights, as McGrath remembers them, were “affaires d’honneur,” pitting equal against equal, necessary exercises that tested what a fellow was made of.  We need to get back to those good ol’ days, “allowing boys to be boys—so that, one day, they can be men.”

Like all gifted romancers, McGrath catches an important part of the truth but misses another.  From my own years growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I retain very different memories of what youthful fighting was all about.  It was true that most teenage fighters aspired to a code of sorts—give fair warning, pick on people your own size, hit above the belt, and so on.  But the code always seemed to break down in practice.  The one-on-one protocol often flew out the window when friends saw friends getting hit or when an observer grew intolerably overstimulated, and, in my experience, numerically mismatched fights were at least as common as the other kind.  The question of whether you would “jump” for a friend, in what circumstances, and against which opponents was matter for lengthy reflection and debate.  One night, behind Frank’s Drive-in, a favorite teen haunt, I was holding my own with a kid my size when I got jumped by a friend of his who was older, heavier, and meaner, a fairly well-known tough guy,  who was soon dribbling and kicking me along the gutter like a soccer ball.  So much for fairness.

Tactics, too, tended to fall well short of the ideal.  Movies like to picture a showy, protracted exchange of tremendous punches, thrown with full arm movements.  The truth is that the human face will absorb very little of that kind of punishment, and deeply sensible inborn reflexes arrange for it not to happen.  Fighters would circle, circle, sometimes for ridiculously long periods, each just beyond the range of the other’s artillery.  The instant one threw, so did the other, and bang!—they would grapple and fall.  On the ground, hostilities would continue in a less decorous but basically safer way, with both parties trying to punch and hold the other at the same time, gouging, twisting arms or fingers, sometimes biting.  One high-school fighter was famous for having bitten off an ear in this phase.

Overall, kicking was nearly as common as punching.  Kickfights, when they did not fizzle out, were rougher than fistfights, because, if one fighter knocked the other down, he could then kick him on the ground, and the worst injuries always happened that way.  My good friend Stuart told the story of the fight he saw one day right after school, in which a kid was knocked down and then struggled to his feet, just in time to catch a kick that not only broke his nose but tore it half off his face.

I was spared the worst of Albuquerque’s chronic youth violence by the good fortune of attending prep school, but many of my friends went to public school, and I got a good sense of the effects, all bad, of the chronic fighting there.  In a word, fighting poisoned both the intellectual and the social atmosphere.  When each day is menaced by the prospect of injury and humiliation, you cannot concentrate on your studies; all your energy goes to charting a course through the reef of your day.  Within broad limits, the jocks, lords of creation, were entitled to do whatever they liked to everyone else, and the values of this aristocracy were, of course, widely adopted, which meant that athletics were hugely overvalued while other forms of achievement earned faint praise.  McGrath sees fighting as playing a key role in turning boys into men; to me, it seems rather to have been a huge obstacle preventing schools from doing everything they were supposed to do.

Central to McGrath’s vision of happy warriordom is his postulate of a male human nature that is inherently competitive and aggressive, exuberant, positively Nietzschean in its will to dominate, so that fighting is spontaneous and all but inevitable.  I submit that this is pretty much the reverse of the truth.  The thing that needs incitement and inculcation and constant reinforcement is the warrior ethic itself, not the natural sociability that equips boys and girls to get along, leading them to form groups and find their places and work out disagreements, though always with the odd blow here and there.  Boys do not come naturally to the kind of fighting I saw and sometimes participated in (though always badly).  Boys have to be badgered and pressured and shamed into fighting, harassed and tempted into it by the reigning social mythology.  But the era when this was necessary seems long gone.  Modern wars are not won by passionate daredevils but by soldiers trained in an ethic of sober professionalism that largely dispenses with John Wayne heroics.  So much the better, say I, and we are well rid of an ideology that has always been at best a cruel accommodation to historical necessity, not something good or right in itself.

        —John Kilgore
Charleston, IL

Dr. McGrath Replies:

Bejaysus!  A Kilgore who does not fondly recall his days of fighting?  What are they saying back in dear old Donegal?

As for the time Kilgore got double-teamed at Frank’s Drive-in, I’m surprised that it did not evoke a general response from the guys.  Such transgressions certainly happened in my times but were considered “really chicken sh-t,” and there would have been a reckoning.  I cannot argue with Kilgore’s personal experiences or with his description of staged fights in movies—he’s absolutely right about Hollywood—but, concerning “fighting poisoning both the intellectual and social atmosphere,” I can only say that I went through high school unaware that there was such a thing as an intellectual atmosphere.  I copied my homework from girls at nutrition and studied only enough to stay eligible.  During the fall, my only concern was breaking away on a 42 trap in the game on Friday night.  Come spring, I only worried that my hamstring might tighten during a 100-yard dash in the meet Friday afternoon.

I wouldn’t characterize my descriptions of fighting as “happy” warriordom.  Intense, vicious, raging, atavistic explosions is more like it.  Happy had nothing to do with it.  Kilgore also claims, “Boys have to be badgered and pressured and shamed into fighting, harassed and tempted into it by the reigning social mythology.”  Oh, hell, I don’t even know what “reigning social mythology” is, but I do know that, when I was a teenager, if some guy looked at me the wrong way, I wanted to knock his teeth out.  Admittedly, there were those who took slightly more provocation to stir the anger in their soul and some who had to be badgered and pressured and shamed, but, for the most part, socialization of boys meant getting them to suppress their natural urge to beat the tar out of the other guy.

I remember my first semester in college reading Freud in Psych 1A and thinking that this guy was the sickest, most twisted freak I’d ever come across.  At the same time, there were those in the class who were having the “aha” experience, saying, “So this is why I . . . ”  Something in their life was explained to them.  Freud explained nothing to me about my 17 years on the planet.  Then, I came to descriptions of the Celts in Western Civ 1A.  “The whole race,” said Strabo, “is madly fond of war, high-spirited and quick to battle. . . . For at any time or place and on whatever pretext you stir them up, you will have them ready to face danger, even if they have nothing on their side but their own strength and courage.”  Diodorus Siculus noted, “When the armies are drawn up in battle array, they are wont to advance before the battleline and to challenge the bravest of their opponents to single combat.”   Aristotle, Arrian, Posidonius, Ammianus Marcellinus, and Dio Cassius had similar things to say.

If we were allowed to do what comes naturally, European peoples would not now be in the process of being displaced in France or Germany or England by Arabs or Indians or Nigerians or some such folks, nor would Californians be fleeing to Idaho in the face of an invasion from south of the border.

Since I suspect that Kilgore and I have not resolved all our differences in this civil discourse, there remains only one avenue for satisfaction: Saturday night at Frank’s Drive-in, John.  No weapons.  You bring your seconds.  I’ll bring mine.