Two weeks into the Iraq war, my son was helping me set the table for dinner. He clattered plates onto placements, as I cleared away the pile of morning newspapers. “Are they the bad guys?” he asked me, pointing to the front-page picture of American soldiers, rifles held at ready, on an Iraqi street. Between September 11th and watching out for the DC sniper, his need to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys was keen. Like any six-year old, he wanted me to put all the people in the right boxes, sorting the good ones from the bad ones. Even then, I knew that dinner would never be simple again.
I had some experience in that department.
When I was a kid, dinner was a square meal at a square table. As a family, we arranged ourselves at the cardinal points. My father sat in the east, his face lit up by the sunset that shone through the window behind me from where I sat in the west. My older brother ruled the north side of the table. My mother perched in the south, close to the swinging door to the kitchen. Dinner was at six o’clock, after homework and before my father headed out to his second job. There were potatoes and sausages on Wednesdays and fish on Fridays.
Then one night in 1968 my brother walked right in and sat in the east, my father’s seat. He declared war on the war and announced his plans to move to Canada, which worried me, because I knew I’d miss him. I also wondered if he would take his collection of 45’s. He talked angrily about pigs, though I couldn’t imagine why, as the ones at the farm where we picked apples seemed benign enough. He complained about other things -- the lottery, the draft, racism. My mother shook her head about that nice boy two blocks over who had just pulled helicopter duty in Vietnam. Everyone knew what that meant. Everyone, that is, except me. I thought it sounded exciting.
This was all a problem for my father, who clearly wanted his seat back, and still believed in Nixon and the war and sausages on Wednesdays. He wanted peace -- peace to eat the food that he worked hard to provide. My father had flown fighter planes in World War II, blown German cities to bits, watched his buddies reduced to fleshy residue. He had answered with his duty when his country called. “First they’ll take over Vietnam, and then communism will spread across the world,” he yelled, smashing his fist on our square table. I imagined communism pressing itself, like the hungry tendrils of vines, into my room at night.
There was more yelling every night. Words like “atrocities” and “napalm” sounded like curses. My father nearly decked my brother over “casualties” and “McNamara”. As the months of arguing went by, my father gradually took his seat back. His firm support for the war turned into vituperative horror. When kids at school teased me for wearing a peace sign, he comforted me. My brother didn’t go to Canada; he went to college. At our square table, every part of my family banged against the other, changed shape, and then fit back together differently. It was the first time I understood that sometimes the good guys and the bad guys change their seats so many times, you begin to forget who was what. They blend together into a confusing gray of duty, hypocrisy, patriotism, and protest.
Almost 40 years later, I am the grown up at the table trying to answer a child’s complicated questions about war with simple answers. And 40 years later, it still doesn’t work.
“Who are the bad guys, Mom?” my son asks me again.
“Well, we are kind of the bad guys.” I try to describe, in first grade terms, the sovereignty of nations, multilateral forces, Saddam Hussein, and Islamic pride. My son listens patiently. “You’re wrong, Mommy.” he insists. “We’re the good guys.” He sits down at the table, and I know he is taking his own ringside seat.
Simple explanations won’t help him for long. It’s the clash of opinions, the battle between ideals, the doubts of what we do and do not yet know that will mean everything to him later, as he steadies his own grip on good and bad – and all its combinations. That's what understanding what America at war is all about.
I just hope he doesn’t have to do this again as a grown up.