My kids are hypnotized by newspaper pictures of Pentagon war simulators, just as they are fascinated by video games like Mortal Kombat on their computers.
They long to drive the Humvees rolling through the Iraqi desert; just as they wish to take a peek through the night-vision goggles American soldiers don on television.
But then they get a glimpse of a wounded child in a hospital in Iraq, or a dead American soldier on the front, and they cuddle up to me in fear because they know that war is not a PlayStation game.
And all the while I wish to go back to a world in which battle was just a screen where the dead could rise from the grave by a simple click of the “reset” key.
I had never imagined that my children would see a real war, an American war.
Sure there have been smaller skirmishes in Bosnia and Africa, easy to ignore. But this time we cannot indulge in our “separate peace.” This time, the war is in our faces.
Born and raised in the peace and prosperity of the Post World War II era, I had until now only harbored the kinds of fears that most middle-class American parents have for their kids—drugs, crime, sex. It had never occurred to me that I would one day see my children walk out of their classrooms with hundreds of fellow students to protest their government.
As an immigrant, I had only watched the television footage of the Vietnam war protests, never realizing that one day I would march beside my children through the streets of San Francisco, chanting the familiar slogans: “What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
In their classrooms, my children are told that they will have substitute teachers for several days because their educators want to march on the Capitol.
At school assembly, my children’s principal hands out a list of classes that will be cut next year because of budget constraints, and begs for donations to save the music programs.
And at home my children show off their mental math by figuring out how many years of school band could be saved if the government just bought one less Bradley infantry carrier. The answer, it turns out, is at least five.
For my children, Iraq is Mesopotamia, where human civilization was first born, where the cultivation of agriculture first began in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. They might forget everything else in their books, but they will never forget the ancient city of Ur, where their history lessons began.
“Mom, look, they might bomb the Ziggurat,” my younger son exclaims after noticing a picture of a peace panel in the pages of the New York Times.
And I can no longer use Mesopotamia as our old family joke.
It had all started when I had been driving a bunch of kids in my beat-up Honda a few years ago. One of the children had asked me how old the car was.
“This car is so ancient,” I had explained, “that when archaeologists were excavating the treasures of Mesopotamia, they found it.”
I was gratified to hear giggles in the back of the car, followed by loud laughter. At last my children had reached a stage when I could joke with them about their schoolwork.
But now, I can scarcely say “Mesopotamia” without envisioning sand, blood, and gore. I cry with my children for the dying Iraqi children, who, with their dark hair and brown skin, look strikingly like us.
I feel a personal connection with each and every American soldier who has perished in the sand of the desert. Because, my older son, who has the body and the reflex of a Daniel Boone, has long announced that he wants to join the military.
Despite his opposition to this particular war, he believes that the defense department will provide him with the most practical career choice.
So, as every war hero comes home draped in the star spangled banner, I sob for the mothers and fathers who have to go on living, wondering in secret if their child’s death was in vain. And I pray that another president will not send his troops out to a far off land without more justification.