Pity the Children

For the United States, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be over soon. We will leave behind, after our defeats, wreckage and death, the contagion of violence and hatred, unending grief, and millions of children who were brutalized and robbed of their childhood. Americans who did not suffer will forget. People maimed physically or psychologically by the violence, especially the Iraqi and Afghan children, will never escape. Time and memory will play their usual tricks. Those who endured war will begin to wonder, years from now, what was real and what was not. And those who did not taste of war’s noxious poison will stop wondering at all.                                                            —Chris Hedges, Truthdig, July 1, 2014

uncle-sam-victory-gardenAs a child born in the late 30’s, my early memories include a Victory Garden (and chickens) in our back yard, rationing, loose lips sinking ships, Uncle Sam pointing a finger and wanting me (except I knew, to my relief, it wasn’t really me he wanted), black-out curtains on the windows of our tiny mill house . . . all the usual American home-front experiences of World War II. The war that raged over there provided the context for our play. (“Bombs over Tokyo” recited with intensity and delight as we dropped a pebble onto its target.) But for all the horror spread across the world, the war never touched me.

I never asked what my country was doing. Questions seemed unnecessary. World War II was, after all, a “good” war, and we Americans were on the “good” side. We were the saviors, keeping the world safe for Democracy. Democracy with a capital D.

I have lived a long life, and that life has been, quite miraculously, untouched by war, yet my heart has been consumed by the thought of it.

8_12I was pregnant with my first child during the Cuban missile crisis. I remember standing in front of my classroom—I was a high school English teacher in a community outside Milwaukee—listening to the principal’s PA announcement of evacuation plans. Common wisdom said that if we came to war, the Soviets would drop a nuclear bomb in Lake Michigan, wiping out Milwaukee and Chicago and their surroundings in a single strike.

Yet the moment passed and my son was born. My next existential crisis came a few years after our excursion into Vietnam had ended. Despite our inglorious exit—more likely because of it—militarism filled the air. In popular music. In clothing styles. In films. We were ramping up for the next war, lacking only a declared enemy. And feeling the press of it, the inevitability of it, I grieved over the man-child I had brought into the world.

Had my son survived in utero what we know now to have been an even more deadly crisis than we understood at the time only to be sent off to fight? My fear wasn’t just that he might be killed or maimed, but that if he survived whatever battles fell to his lot, he would come home damaged. I had brought up my son with all the gentleness at my command, taught him to love with all the love I possessed, and yet I knew in the right—or should I say the wrong—circumstances, his own capacity for gentleness and love could be destroyed.

8_12RainFireMy solution? What else? I wrote another book for kids. A book about the profound damage inflicted on everyone—winners and losers alike—in war. It was called Rain of Fire and it won the Jane Addams Peace Award from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and it changed . . . nothing.

I stand in the center of my eighth decade still firmly convinced of the evil of war, all wars. Convinced that, even if I believed war to be sometimes necessary, my country is showing up on the wrong side again and again and again. Convinced, too, that no one I can vote for would have the power—probably not even the desire—to seek real peace. And so I have no answers. I have a passel of grandchildren and no answers. I have written piles of books for my grandchildren and yours, and they contain no answers.

Chris Hedges speaks of pitying the children whose lives have been destroyed by the wars being waged in our name, and I do pity them. Profoundly. But I pity, too, the untouched children around me. Two grandsons readying for their first year of college and the little neighbor boy toddling down the sidewalk behind his plastic push toy. Every day that is given me, I rise knowing that no power I can dream, no story I can write will keep them safe.

Did I once think Rain of Fire might actually make a difference? It’s hard to remember, but I suspect not. Yet I understood then and am even more deeply convinced now that it was the best I could do, spin a story out of the substance of my heart. To say clearly, “There are no good wars.” To say, “War destroys everyone, victor and victim alike.” To say, “If we want peace, we must begin with our homes and our neighborhoods.”

Rain of Fire was a small book and, as I’ve already said, it changed nothing. But at least it spoke my own truth.