Children of WWII… Kennedy… Vietnam… 9.11
: As I write this, I am watching Path to War on HBO. It is the story of Lyndon Johnson’s reputedly reluctant escalation of the Vietnam War. I’m watching this as if it were fiction. I keep hoping it will turn out differently, that Johnson will stop and do the right thing, that he will pull back, pull out, end it before it’s too late. Of course, he does not. And that changed the lives of my generation. Too many died. Many fought. And many of us fought against the war. I never had to make my hard decision between jail and Canada; going to war was not a choice. I was let off by my low age and high lottery number. Even so, Vietnam made me much of what I am today. It molded my morality. It threatened to tear into my family. It knocked the foundation out from under my respect for authority. It tainted my perspective on patriotism. It made me into a pacifist. It defined my age.
I was talking Friday with the best newspaper editor I know — my boss now and again — about children today and how 9.11 will affect them and mold their lives. My wise friend wasn’t sure that this would define their age; he said the story is not over yet. I believe it will define them though I agree that it is certainly too soon for them or us to know how.
When John Kennedy was killed, I was in third grade. Of course, I remember the scene: A black minister worked as the custodian — to earn enough to support his family and church — in my school — a Friends school, as it happens — and we saw his face at our door, crying, telling the teacher what had happened as we were shuttled onto buses to go home. I knew this was important but I did not know what it meant, none of us did for decades, not for a generation. The same was true of Vietnam. The symptoms are too many and too obvious to list but it took a generation for them to become obvious. And this story, too, is not over.
I believe that today’s children will be the generation of 9.11. Read the Washington Post on the “heirs to a nation’s pain,” the children of the victims. Read about our well-meaning outpouring of sympathy and respect that often makes the pain sharper for them.
Virtually nothing is more devastating for a child than a parent’s death. How much greater the grief, though, when it seems on constant public display?
The pain is felt in each single heart.
All 4-year-old An Nguyen knows now is that his father is gone. It could take him years to grasp why.
Most mornings, he bounds happily into his preschool classroom, eager to write, draw, paint, sing. But if any of the other boys or girls do not show, his smiles and mood dissolve. An’s father, Navy contractor Khang Nguyen, never came back. What if they don’t either?
But for the future, this is but the first snowflake on the mountain. The avalanche is yet to come. I cannot predict what impact this will have on this generation, on their safety, politics, patriotism, religion, morality, their lives; these changes cannot be obvious today. But they will reach far, from the children of the victims, to the children of the survivors, to the children of the soldiers, to the children who witnessed this, to every child.
I look at my own son and daughter and wonder how they will remember this time, how they will interpret the impact on them and their family and nation. I don’t know yet. I may never know.
: Thomas Friedman says the press has the story — as my father would say it — bassackwards:
The failure to prevent Sept. 11 was not a failure of intelligence or coordination. It was a failure of imagination. Even if all the raw intelligence signals had been shared among the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the White House, I’m convinced that there was no one there who would have put them all together, who would have imagined evil on the scale Osama bin Laden did.
Osama bin Laden was (or is) a unique character. He’s a combination of Charles Manson and Jack Welch