Six years ago today my life changed. At 11:47 PM Ryan was born, and I became a father. Ryan is now in Kindergarten, celebrating his sixth birthday as he continues to surprise me, whether it’s reading signs as we drive, skiing down Mt. Titcomb in control, or coming up with imaginative theories and stories.
Six years ago, the United States was ready to enter Baghdad. President Bush, Vice President Cheney and especially the neo-conservatives in thea Adminsitration were feeling vindicated. Iraq not only didn’t put up much of a fight, but it was clear that we were unlikely to be hit by chemical or nuclear weapons. Awesome American firepower and the will to use it was yielding a major victory. Within a week the statue of Saddam would be pulled down, and the in the minds of the Washington elite, the US was showing itself to be the master of the post war world. Talk about “taking a left turn and heading to Syria” or “turning up the pressure on Iran” was starting to come from the war hawks, already assuming that Iraq was won, and we could think about the next “liberation.”
Six years ago I thought about the new, vulnerable life that had just entered the world. I noticed how much more emotional I was in response to stories involving children — becoming a father changed the way I looked at the world. I think it peeled away a layer of abstraction, connecting me more directly with the meaning of what was happening.
To be sure, when the 1991 Gulf War started I found out something about myself that surprised me. I had opposed that war on intellectual grounds, but when I started seeing the bombs fall on TV, and thinking about the impact on average Iraqis, I was horrified. How could my country be causing so much death and destruction? How can we rationalize killing children by pointing at Saddam? How can we bomb a whole country, causing intense civilian death, or traumatize Iraqi armed forces with round the clock carpet bombing, when they themselves were often conscripts who would have prefered not be abused by Saddam?
The utter immorality of our actions, even if endorsed by the UN, and protected by an alliance seemed self-evident and clear. Yet, as I looked at my culture and fellow citizens, I saw they were caught up in the rush of a televised war. “Let’s get that SOB,” “no one will mess with America,” “wow, what technology we have.” I felt alienated in my own country, finding it hard to believe that people weren’t thinking about the Iraqi people as fellow humans. All that mattered was our experience, worrying about the Iraqis was not something we did.
Six years ago I reflected on how we had gotten used to war. Each war had its own graphics and theme music. Whether Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq, a generation was growing up which would be used to war. They would rationalize the killing by believing the government story. The Clinton PR machine sold Kosovo as a success, when the reality was far more ambiguous. Iraq was done to “liberate” the Iraqi people — though no real concern was shown for what they were going through. Ironically (and in a way that inspires hope) the soldiers we sent over to Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to care more about the people they encountered then we did at home. Despite many abuses of power, there are even more stories of soldiers trying to raise money for children, and seeing the humanity of the people they had been sent to ‘liberate.’ But for most people at home, dead bodies weren’t seen, suffering was abstract, and the focus was on politics and power. 3000 people were killed on 9-11, we were outraged. We reign much more destruction on a country and its innocents, but somehow that’s different.
Six years ago I realized I would have to protect my children from buying into the lies our culture teaches, the most insidious being the lie that our lives are more valuable and important than the lives of non-Americans. I would have to protect him from vultures who will try to lure him to the armed forces when he gets to be 16 or 17, with promises of adventure and money. If it were to defend the country that would be one thing; instead, we kill and destroy to try to maintain power. Young men and women join with honorable intentions; I feel they are being used by cynical politicians.
Six years ago I wondered what kind of world Ryan would grow up in. I already worried about the current account deficit, the unsustainable economy, and the real possibility that he would find a world with fewer opportunities. Those worries obviously remain.
Six years on, the country is much wiser. We learned that we can’t simply spread democracy by force, the neo-conservative theory has joined Soviet communism on the ash heap of history. We’re still in Iraq, but almost everyone realizes that the war was unnecessary, a mistake, and has weakened us. The key now is to find a way out that doesn’t do more harm than good. But even that is likely to be an elusive goal, given that many groups there are biding their time, ready for a power play when we leave. Now the optimists hope not for a functioning pro-American democracy, but maybe a strong man, a new Saddam like character, actually bringing stability. Ironic.
We are still in Afghanistan. As much as we’ve learned about the limits of military power, we still are afraid to leave, to “cut and run.” Yet we also haven’t really addressed the moral issue of how we have used our massive power to destroy so many lives, and shatter families, communities and whole societies. We point to other evil doers as providing rationale for our acts, but that rings hollow. We still don’t get it, the debate about whether we ‘win or lose’ or ‘America’s role in the world.’ The innocents remain collateral damage, unimportant bit players in our strategic drama.
Yet, as we spend ourselves into deeper debt, continue to see how our wars and power grabs have hurt more than helped, I also have hope. No, not because of Barack Obama and the change he promised — change that so far is still unrealized. Rather, six years ago I witnessed a child come into the world, and comforted him as they washed, measured, and clothed him. I recall how thunderstuck I was by the emotion of the experience, not expecting to feel so much unconditional and powerful love for this tiny creature.
Six years later my goal is to recognize that the love I feel for my family, that hit me when I first experienced fatherhood, is love that is deserved by all humans. My goal is to look at life — how I treat others, how I look at war, the world economy, the environment, my teaching, and all aspects of life — with that love in mind. Love gives life meaning. Love wipes away the blinders that allow us to rationalize war, theft, lies, and mean spiritedness. Love trumps guilt.
Six years ago I lost a lot of freedom. Money started to get diverted from travel to toys, and time spent on leisure — going to play golf, tennis, hiking — disappeared. It became diapers, late nights going to rock Ryan and then his brother Dana a few years later to sleep (I’m a lighter sleeper than Natasha, so I had night duty). No more watching my shows, no more Sunday football. Virtually all free time became kid-related. It was two years before we’d go to a movie, and we hardly ever ate out. I had lived four decades free and able to do as I wanted, six years ago that all changed.
My mom told me that the birth of a child will patch a hole in your heart you never knew you had. Six years ago, that hole was patched. Six years ago my abstract belief in the power of love was put in undeniable concrete form — and reinforced nearly three years later with Dana’s birth. Six years ago today was the most important day in my life.