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Ain't gonna study war no more

My sons are the same age now that my little brother and I were when my parents were protesting the war in Vietnam. We usually attended demonstrations in Boston, where we lived; once or twice we went to DC. I don't remember anything specific, only the singing and marching. That and I had to wear a fancy dress and nice shoes. This was a big deal because, at nine, I was usually allowed to choose whether I went barefoot or donned sneakers, whether I wore Danskin or tie-dye.

            I remember my father becoming enraged watching the evening news: All those young boys dying for no reason. For a cause we don't believe in. For a president we don't trust. I remember my mother holding my little brother and rocking him, reassuring him that, draft or no draft, she would never let them take him. "We'll move to Canada first," she said. He was six.

            The body bags rolling across the TV screen, my father's frustration, my mother's worry. There are a lot of reasons why I have been trying to keep this war out of my house and away from my children. I don't want them to become overwhelmed by my anger at the president and my fear for the lives of the American soldiers.

            Child psychology experts now suggest parents keep the TV news off when children are present, hide the newspaper, and refrain from discussing the disturbing aspects of the war at the dinner table. But I need to go a step further. In order to lower my own anxiety, I need to keep the war away from myself.

            During the first Gulf War --- before I had kids --- I saw how seductive round-the-clock coverage can be. I became obsessed with the made-for-TV war, fascinated by the video-game type images of little rectangles --- buildings, Pentagon officials said --- being blown up. After 9/11, I learned an important lesson: I am a calmer mother and am able to answer my kids' questions better when I haven't been steeped in constant disaster coverage. So now when I find myself getting edgy, jonesing for more news, I slam shut the New York Times website or snap off CNN, nipping my obsession in the bud.

            But as I sidestep rallies and the news, I wonder: Am I being a good citizen? Is my responsibility to my nation? To the country I love precisely because I can get out there and protest? Or is my responsibility to my children? To the two little citizens about whom I care the most?

My parents answered the higher call and raised their voices against the Vietnam War in a public way. They risked a lot in doing so. They risked the safety of our family --- my mother can laugh now when she recalls how, no matter how hard they tried to avoid it, the rallies we went to ended in violence. Ironically, she says, the rallies they avoided --- because authorities expected violence --- were peaceful. They also risked their careers --- years later a file on my parents appeared when my father's company bid on a job for the FBI. It was a thin file --- with photos of them at a demonstration --- but a file nonetheless.

            The Vietnam War ended in large part due to the growing public outcry that my parents, my brother, and I were part of. This is a proud legacy I cannot uphold right now. I wonder if I am a disappointment to my mother (my father is dead) and others like her who exercise their freedom to organize, petition, and protest. Am I ducking my responsibility in the name of my children's delicate sensibilities? And if not, how am I different from the apathetic parents out there? What kind of message am I sending my children when I answer their questions about a war I believe is unnecessary, but do nothing to stop it?

            I am proud of my parents and of how much they care about the world. Dinner table conversations have always included compassionate discussions of world events. For example, my mother was concerned about the Taliban's atrocities years before it became a household name.

            When she visited after our second son was born, I asked her about the purple lace pinned to her shirt. While volunteering for Amnesty International she learned about the oppression of Afghani women; how they lost their jobs and had to cover their bodies with burkas, peering out through lace like this. With a new baby, a toddler running around, and a husband working 36-hour shifts, I was feeling a little oppressed myself. I couldn't take it all in. Women shuttered in their homes. Beaten in the streets. What can I do? I wondered, clutching the baby tight.

I'm still not ready to jump up and take a stand. My work here at home is not quite done. We will not attend a protest as a family because I fear for my children. Not for their safety, but for their active little brains. I don't want them to think about this war any more than they already do.

            Of course, when they are older and can understand the choices we have as US citizens --- to vote, to take up arms, to run for office, and to oppose those in office --- I will include them in my political thoughts and activities. I look forward to discussing world affairs with them. Maybe we'll even march together if, heaven forbid, there's another need to.

            For now, I'll just stick with answering their questions. No, Iraq will not shoot bombs at Rochester. No, Daddy doesn't have to fight this war because other brave men and women have volunteered to do so. Yes, President Bush knows that a lot of people oppose the war. But he's the boss of the country right now and he gets to make the decisions, just as Daddy and I get to make the decisions for you.

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