Washington Post Opinions Saturday, March 19, 2011
My father, my son As a daughter and mother of soldiers, I’m conflicted about the war.
By Lisa Graff
I know nothing about war itself, but my mother’s explanations about my father’s military service during World War II have remained with me. She claimed that Dad got addicted to morphine when he was in the hospital in Europe. My father never really survived the war, she said, even though he came home in 1945 and together they raised six children.
Tom Hanks was interviewed in late 2009 about the World War II Museum in New Orleans, and my mind raced when I heard him say it was amazing how those men put their lives on the line for their country … and then just went back home and put up Christmas trees.
Every Christmas my father went alone to pick out a tree on a lot run by the local scout troop. Once he took me along. His breath smelled of bourbon and cigarettes. He seemed cheerful when he drove, not his usual angry self. I remember the smell of that tree lot and that the scoutmaster gave me lollipops to share with my sisters. That Christmas we pooled our money to buy our father the perfect gift: a shiny red ashtray and a bottle of Southern Comfort, a brand that he liked but that cost more than Jim Beam.
As an adult, I grasp the inappropriateness of this gesture. Growing up with an alcoholic, it becomes normal to give someone you love the thing that makes him happiest. My father would fill his glass with ice and bourbon and watch war movies late into the night. My mother talked to me about his nightmares and night sweats, but my father never once mentioned the war to me or my sisters. He died in November 1981, the day before Veterans Day, at 56 — the same age I am now. The doctor said he had a fifth of his liver left. His uniform hangs in my closet, and his Purple Heart and various pins are in my desk.
In 2007, my son joined the Army at age 21. My father never graduated from high school; he joined the Army so he could make a living. I could afford for my son to finish college, but he chose not to, despite my pleas. I told my son about the grandfather he never knew and about my classmates who didn’t come home from Vietnam; how I was tear-gassed at a D.C. rally when I was 19, embroidered peace signs on my jeans and hated Nixon for not bringing the troops home.
I wonder what advice my father would have given my son. If my father told him the truth about the horrors of war, would my son have listened? Would my father have said that any war was worth fighting?
I wept. And I am ashamed that I did not tell my son that I was proud of him that day because I was frightened for his future and, selfishly, for mine.
When my son completed boot camp, my husband and I were there to support him. There were so many young faces in uniform. All of us were searching the crowd for the glimpse of the one that was ours. My God, was I proud of him that day, and I did tell him. But I also noticed that so many of the graduating soldiers were only 19, 20, 21 or 22 and that many already had wives and a child or two to support.
There is a corner in my neighborhood where on many weekends two groups of Americans gather on opposite sides of the intersection. On the corner closest to me are signs that say things like “Support our troops” and “Honk if you support us.” They wave the American flag at passing cars.
On the opposite corner are protesters with banners saying “Send our troops home.” They wave the same red, white and blue flags. They say they love the same country.
As my son prepares for officer training this year, I feel torn: Can I stand in the middle of the street? I want to support the troops. I support my son. I did not support the invasion of Iraq and do not believe we will “win” in Afghanistan. Is there now a possibility that he could be sent to Libya? What I learned from my father and several presidents was a healthy disbelief in the idea that our government will do what is right. I would like to trust the generals and the president to know what is best for our nation and national security, but I am afraid that too many young people have died in vain. Maybe I am the coward.
Maybe I take my freedom for granted. If my son is killed or wounded in battle, I want proof that he died for the freedoms of protesters on both sides of the street. I pray that if he comes home wounded, inside or out, the military will support him psychologically so he can learn to live in a place that is not at war. I’d like for him to take pleasure in putting up a Christmas tree. I hope he can talk about it, because I would listen to every word and try to learn something.