I'm reading Libby Hellman's Set the Night on Fire, partly because Hellman's reputation as a mystery author precedes her, partly because I've read her posts on a blog called The Outfit: A Collective of Chicago Mystery Writers, but mostly because it links the present to the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, my hometown. Most of the Sixties--rebellion, the Beatles, the war, all of it--passed me by. I was busy with my own life, adjusting to turning thirty, marriage, and motherhood. Oh, I do remember being shocked and upset at the brutality of the police in those riots and the absolute horror of the Kent state shootings. The thing I most clearly remember is the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the riots that followed, including predictions of riots in peaceful Fort Worth (they never happened). I worried that my husband would be drafted--he was an osteopathic physician and so would have gone in as a regular infantryman rather than a physician and he'd have made a lousy soldier; a high school classmate was in the first class at the Air Force Academy and one of the first shot down and buried at the academy in Colorado Springs. But pretty much the war was somewhere else, and something I didn't think about much.
In the last nine years I've thought about war a lot. I wasn't about to join Cindy Sheehan's troops--I'm much too timid and mild for physical protests, but I hated the wars. I could see some justification for going into Afghanistan, where the 9/11 bombers had come from, but I wondered that the government thought the U.S. could tame all those warring tribes, since no other troops had been able to do so for generations. And I doubt they understood the enormity of looking for Al Quaeda in that mountainous terrain. But I was vehemently opposed to the invasion of Iraq to "make it a democratic country," especially with no hard evidence of the WMDs that later turned out not to exist. For heaven's sake, they had their own culture--who are we to say they should become democratic? I heard the mounting casualty statistics and watched the names scroll by on TV with great sadness. "Shock and awe" had no meaning for me. But still, the war was at a distance, and while I grieved I didn't feel touched. I knew no one who had gone to war, and I knew very few who had a family member with the troops in the Middle East.
The war has now become more personal to me. In August my sister-in-law's new brother-in-law (how's that for complicated?) deployed to Afghanistan, and the Alter family went to a big send-off party. I was relieved when he told me he had a desk job and would be relatively safe, but my brother pointed out he's in southern Afhganistan, one of the worst regions, and has to get back and forth to his base.
Now today my brother calls with news that my nephew is deploying to Iraq, probably in March. I comfort myself that as a physician he's not in as much danger, but still it brings this war even closer to home. He and his wife, also a physician, have three children, the oldest only four-and-a-half. I hate what war does to people and what it does to families. One of my hopes was that President Obama would quickly get us out of these wars--and close Guantanomo--and I guess he's doing the best he can. But it's not fast enough for me.
As I look back at my life, war and the military have never been a part of it. My dad fought with Canadian troops in WWI and when jet planes first crossed our Chicago skies, the whine would send him running for cover--it sounded like incoming artillery shells. I have been told I was playing on the kitchen floor when Dad stuck his head in to say that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, but I don't remember that or V-E Day or V-J Day (I do remember FDR's death). I remember when Dad came home to announce we were at war--the Korean War--on a rainy June day when a distant cousin was visiting and we were all getting ready for another cousin's wedding. My brother was a Navy pilot just after the Korean War, but other than knowing he was flying planes, I was too wrapped up in being a teenager to pay attention. I'm sure my mom worried--well, darn, I know she did.
But war has always been distant, and I don't like having it up close. I often think about what a protected life I live in comparison with millions around the world--it somehow doesn't seem right to just thank God for that. It makes me think I should do something useful.
I know a lot of you have been touched much more closely by war, and I'd love to hear your comments.