My generation's war was the Cold War. Three things stand out about it. The first is "Duck and Cover." We kids at St. Joseph's Elementary School in Jim Thorpe, and millions of our counterparts across the country, practiced diving under our desks in the event of a nuclear explosion. If we happened to be outside on the playground when the mushroom cloud appeared, we were to drop to the ground and pull our jackets up over our heads. Civil defense signs sprouted outside subways and other underground shelters. Dedicated homeowners built backyard fallout shelters and stocked them with Jolly Green Giant veggies. Some bought guns and debated whether or not they'd shoot neighbors who came knocking on their shelter doors.
None of the above would have worked had the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. engaged in a thermonuclear war. Most, if not all, of us would have died. And the dead ones would have been the lucky ones.
We teens I was 15 felt this down in our primal guts 50 years ago in October 1962. President Jack Kennedy took to the national airwaves on October 22nd to tell us that the Evil Empire had nuclear missiles in Cuba. Everyone I knew expected war. Fervent prayers were prayed at Marian Catholic High School and all across the country. Some prayed for peace, some for victory. In the end, we got an uneasy peace.
Meanwhile, the Cold War was turning hot. A conflict simmered in a two-bit Southeast Asian country called Vietnam. Some 16,000 American "advisers" worked with the unenthusiastic army of President Diem, a dictator who grew more unpopular by the day. Kennedy decided to pull our boys out of Vietnam as soon as he was reelected. He even told Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to draw down the first 1,000 in 1963. Meanwhile, the CIA colluded with Vietnamese generals. A coup killed Diem in early November 1963. JFK reportedly was appalled, when he heard the news. We can wonder if some instinct in his primal gut knew he might be next. In the event, he had only about three weeks left to live. Some lay his death at the feet of the same CIA that helped kill Diem.
The CIA and the Joint Chiefs got their hot war after Kennedy's murder. By the time I was out of college and ripe for the plucking by the Carbon County draft board, LBJ had half a million Americans "neck deep in the Big Muddy." Meanwhile, on the home front, public opinion was turning dramatically against the hot war in Southeast Asia. Stationed by then with the Coast Guard on Governors Island in New York Harbor, in November 1969 I joined the half million who marched in a Moratorium to St. Patrick's Cathedral to demand an end to the quagmire.
That end didn't come until five years later. The man who ended it, Richard Nixon, also opened a dialogue with Red China. It took another 15 years and another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, to bring an end to the Cold War and the Evil Empire (Reagan's term). By the time Bill Clinton unseated Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, the Berlin Wall was scattered to millions of souvenir hunters and democracy had broken out all across Eastern Europe. We had won.
We thought the 21st century would be an American century. A guy named Osama bin Laden had a different idea.
I remember September 11, 2001 clearly. I was 13 years old and in eighth grade, and it was my art teacher who told my class that something bad had happened. That's all she said "something bad happened" and she didn't elaborate. Nobody did. We didn't have a school assembly (at least not that day), and we didn't go home early. I walked home with my friend, Natalya, like I did almost every other day that year, and then we went rollerblading because the weather was perfect; crisp and cool but sunny, one of the first days that felt like fall.
I have only a vague memory of seeing the Twin Towers going up in flame on the news. Of my mother saying, "This is serious."
Later, we had the assembly and the class discussions, and I wrote a bad poem about my feelings that was featured in the school newspaper. But it took years many years for me to truly understand what happened that day and how I felt about it.
Only last year did we come full circle with the death of Osama bin Laden, and I think it's interesting that although I was a full 10 years older, I found that event similarly difficult to process.
When I was 13, before 9/11, I wrote a research paper railing against capital punishment. I had many sound points to back up my reasoning it doesn't deter crime, it wastes tax dollars but one point that sticks in my mind was my contention that people aren't evil. I said people were mentally ill, or abused, or conditioned to commit crimes, but they aren't evil. I don't think I believe that anymore. I think evil does exist, and that sometimes people should pay.
And yet my own emotions regarding Osama's death were mixed. While I understood the people cheering in the streets, I did not cheer with them. I felt some relief and, I'll admit, some retribution, but I also felt fear. Fear of retaliation, and of perpetuating a cycle as old as mankind.
Each generation may have its war, but I hate that we've come to accept that so easily.