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My son, who is four, picked up a copy of Time magazine in the supermarket line. The cover showed a womanís face, strong-jawed and resolute. She wore protective glasses and a sand-colored camouflage helmet. "What does it say?" he asked me.
"When Mom Goes to War," I read aloud.
"Mom, we should get this magazine," he said urgently. "I really need to know what to do if you have to go to the war."
I explained that I do not have to go because I am not in the military. It is understandably confusing for him. He knows that both of his grandfathers went to war. His friendís father is going now. It is not much of a stretch, when you are four, to assume that your own parents will have to go, too.
My kids are pretty interested in the war. We talk about it fairly often, though I donít always know what to say. They are all quite young still. I try to deliver information in a neutral way, point counterpoint, without sugarcoating, though naturally I leave some parts out. Sometimes we listen to NPR on the car radio, but eventually someone asks if we can listen to Radio Disney instead.
They are still so young, my children. It hasnít yet occurred to them to be fearful, much less terrified; to wonder if the war will somehow wend its way back home. And while weíve talked about how people in Iraq will die, they do not seem to have grasped that those "people" might include children like them. I know that this idea will occur to one of them, sooner or later, especially if the war drags on.
But my children are wonderfully stoic. Oblivious in the best sweet-dreaming sense of the word. They could travel anywhere in the world and be instantly recognizable as Americans.
When I heard about the American prisoners of war being held in Iraq, and how pictures of them were posted on the al Jazeera Web site, I waited until the kids were out of the room and I looked.
The pictures of the dead American soldiers were disturbing and sad. I expected that. I've seen pictures of dead people before. From reading newspaper accounts, I already knew that there would be a picture of a soldier with a bullet hole in his forehead. But the pictures of the other POWs, the ones who were still alive, struck me because I was not prepared for how awfully young they would be. They do not have one gray hair to split amongst them.
One young manís face in particular is burned in my memory, because his expression betrays how profoundly screwed he is, how well he knows it, and how desperately he wants to survive. He has enormous brown eyes. Some other mother's son.
Because I had the al Jazeera pages translated into English, I saw the link leading to pictures of Iraqi war victims and followed it. I didnít want to see more dead people, but neither did I want to be the sort of person who ignores the sorrows of the "other side," assuming they donít belong to me.
The first picture I saw was of a toddler with its head wrapped in bandages, crying. I'm sorry to say that some part of my mind thought, There, thatís not so bad. Sheíll make it. But I was not ready for what I saw next. It was a dead child with his head split open, his face crumpled like a deflated basketball because he was missing his skull. The skin was torn down the sides and the center of the face. There was a sweep of dark lashes, now concave, and not where you would expect to find them. The whole head looked like a rubber Halloween mask thatíd been cut up with scissors, except it was human, and the day before, it had belonged to a child.
A bomb did this, one of ours, I thought, and I caught myself wondering, How does a bomb blow up the skull and not the face? At the same time, on another channel, a chant started repeating in my head: This isn't right. This shouldnít be happening. People shouldnít treat each other this way.
The hawks say that people like me donít have the stomach for war, as if this were a character flaw. But it isnít true. I have the stomach for it; I just donít see the point. The point gets further and further away from me the longer I stare at this heap of human roadkill massacred by my country. We who put the "us" in U.S. Why are we bombing Iraq, Mr. Bush? Iím very sorry, but I forgot. I looked at these pictures and now I canít remember.
I think about writing a letter down and sending it to Bush, but I know that his people arenít even counting them. Bush has said that he considers those Americans who oppose the war to be merely an "interest group." What good would it do to write? People far more informed than I, senior military personnel and even his own father advised him not to go ahead with his war plans, and he ignored everyone. Nor can I change anything by writing to my Congressional representatives, all of whom are moderate, lockstep Democrats. They haven't tried to stop him though I think they're the only people who could.
The latest Gallup poll finds that the majority of Americans support the attack on Iraq. Mention the possibility of impeaching Bush and one is instantly relegated to the lunatic fringe. After so many years of hand-wringing over one military action after another, I have come to think that democracy is a word that means "nothing thatís important to me will ever happen."
Yesterday, a propos of nothing, my son said, "I think we should say weíre sorry to the Iraqi people." Unfortunately, that wonít help, either. There is nothing like tearing peopleís children to bits to get them to hate you. But I donít tell my son that. I donít want to tell him that we are the ugly Americans, fresh targets, deliverers of a war we didnít want to a people we donít hate and utterly, utterly powerless to change it. He is such a little patriot, my son. This explanation can wait.