Just War?

Ash and Friends Sketch

Frantic, I herded my daughter and her closest high school friends into a cove beneath high, perfectly trimmed hedges, surrounded by blood-red geraniums that were at odds with the smoke that was beginning to turn the sky a dull gray.

“No, not in there!” my neighbor shouted.  “That’s the first place they’ll target when they see people running from the street!”

She had served in the military, but this was the first time I’d seen her carry a gun—the kind with a magazine of ammunition that until now I’d only seen in war movies.

Pointing the muzzle of the gun in the opposite direction, she gestured with the barrel toward the beautiful brick mansion, painted white, that I’d always admired on my morning walks.

Thankful again that I’d become friends with someone so different from me, I allowed her to herd my precious young people toward the house.  She opened an unlocked door and directed the children inside, her eyes darting from them to the smoky sky.

Just as she gestured me in and reached to pull the door closed, a flash of fire exploded near the hedges, and I thanked God for our precarious safety.

My daughter and her friends stood in a huddle in the center of what appeared to be a giant ballroom as my neighbor sprinted toward the first of a series of tall windows that ran from ceiling to floor.  As I hurried toward the children to wrap them in my peace-loving arms, my neighbor reprimanded me.  “Help me close these drapes!”

I woke up panting.  “Oh, God, oh, God!  Thank you!”

Reaching over to lay my hand on my husband’s arm, I touched flesh to assure myself that I’d only been dreaming—playing out my anxiety about chemical weapons and the safety of the children I love, now all adults.

I had no doubts about the catalyst for my subconscious imagination.  For weeks now I’ve anguished over the situation in Syria.  I’ve watched horrifying images of dead children lined up in rows, their skin melted.  I’ve read countless articles by pundits who argue both the merits and the pitfalls of engaging the U.S. military in another country’s civil war.  I’ve read posts by friends, nieces, and nephews my daughter’s age who rage against U.S. involvement.

They remind me of another war in another time, when I was the precise age they were in my nightmare.  A high school student who watched footage of napalm attacks in Viet Nam, I wore the bracelet of a soldier whose plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.  He and his pilot spent nearly six years in captivity.

Lieutenant Gary Anderson came home alive on my birthday in 1973, and I sat in front of the television and cried as he walked down the steps of the plane.  And in one of those crushing ironies of life, he died three years later in a military training exercise.

I still remember his name.  I still have the silver bracelet.  I remember feeling just the way today’s young people feel—helpless in the face of leaders in whom we have little trust.  Wearing that bracelet and watching college students demonstrate seemed all that I could do to protest a war that seemed far away from the bucolic town where I grew up, knowing no one personally whose boots marched the ground in that jungle on the other side of the world.

Certain then that we were not fighting a just war, I wish I could be so certain now.  Last week I posted a question I was asking myself—wondering whether future generations would ask, as my generation has asked about the extermination of the Jews, How could the world stand by and watch the slaughter of innocents?

Instead of finding certainty, I read about the complexities of the conflict—that many of the slaughtered are jihadists and the children of jihadists.

But they are children.  And many of the adults are innocent of any wrongdoing—parents who likely feel as helpless to protect their children as I felt in that vivid nightmare.

I don’t know where the answer lies.  I know that if enemies come for our children as they did in my dream, I want someone to be able to protect them as my neighbor did when I had no idea how to wield a weapon.

I do trust President Obama in a way that I did not trust Richard Nixon.  Our president seems sincere.  He’s smart.  He’s willing to anger the people who voted him into office if he thinks what he’s doing is right.  And come what may, I don’t think we’ll hear him say, “I am not a crook,” only to learn later that that, too, was a lie.

And I find myself hoping that Secretary of State Kerry’s remark about what Syria can do to avoid war was anything but an off-the-cuff remark.  I’m willing to grant our leaders some secrecy and some carefully calculated political dissembling if it leads to diplomacy that resolves this conflict in a way that allows everyone to save face.

Some loving parents’ precious children are dead.  And I can’t quite get past feeling that the murderers should pay.  But at this point I’ll settle for bringing a world together to ensure that the perpetrators don’t have the means to use chemical weapons again.

President Obama, members of Congress, I’m willing to wait a few years for you to tell me a story.  Just not the kind of story my mother meant when she was trying to get at the truth and insisted, “Now don’t you tell me a story!”

Tell us a story that isn’t a lie.  A story of how you tried your best to do the right thing.  A story that will make us believe in you again.

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