The events of this week have shaken the realization out of me that these were children born into war. It’s been nearly ten years – basically, the sum total of my adult life – that my country has been engaged in conflicts stemming, in some ways more directly than others, from the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. Perhaps time has made me less sensitive to the repercussions of those events. Changes to the threat level don’t reverberate in my consciousness quite like they used to. But this week we all were taken back to 9/11, reminded of that defining moment in our country’s history. And I became more conscious to the fact that I have an obligation to my children. I’m obligated to help them understand what happened on that day – not so they can pass a history exam, or be literate in political-historic cocktail party conversation, but to enable them to use that information, that emotional knowledge, to work toward a more peaceful existence for the next generation.
This war has colored my children’s entire existence, as it has colored the existence of every child born since that September day, although not in immediately palpable ways. Their father hasn’t had to face the possibility of being drafted, as was a possibility for my parents’ generation during the Vietnam War. Their mother hasn’t had to stock a pantry with only as much sugar as was rationed to her, as those in my grandparents’ generation were forced to do during World War II.
Yet this war, the one we’ve waged against Terror, that ominously obscure enemy, has nevertheless fueled a different kind of existence for my children’s generation than would have otherwise emerged. As they crumbled to the ground, the World Trade Center towers brought down with them whatever framework for reality this country’s citizens had erected; much as JFK’s assassination shifted my parents’ reality, I imagine. And from the dust and ashes rose a new, September 12 reality. My generation’s reality.
But what do I tell my children about my generation’s post-9/11 existence? My life has changed in more significant ways than just having to abide by stricter rules at the airport… hasn’t it? Could miniature shampoo bottles really be my generation’s equivalent to sugar rations?
So I come back to this question: What will I tell my children about the war they were born into?
Of course, I could rely on their history teachers to educate them about the social and political implications that emerged, like phantoms, from the rubble of the annihilated Twin Towers. They will no doubt have text book chapters and pop quizzes dedicated to the subject. They will know the dates and names – September 11, 2001…Osama Bin Laden – just as I know dates and names from Vietnam and World War II. But what will emotionally connect my children to this chapter of our nation’s history? What will elicit tears in them like the ones that left streaks on our faces as we watched, horrified, the story unfold before us?
I ask these questions as a mother, and as a citizen, grappling with the same questions of myself. Have I, has my generation, learned any lessons about war and conflict from our parents and grandparents? What emotionally connects me to the wars of my parents and my grandparents’ generations? I ask this of myself because I believe the answer holds the key to another more meaningful question: Is it possible to take the horrific stories of war, those dark and viscous experiences, and mold them, clay-like, into something useful – beautiful, even? In essence, can we do anything to help our children break the cycle of conflict’s inevitability?
I ask this of myself, a mother in a post-9/11 world, not knowing the possibility of the answer I hope for, for my children and for their children. But I hold onto that hope, as slippery and unmanageable as it may be, because as a parent, I must. It is my obligation, and my generation’s responsibility to share with our children the stories of war – the real stories of war, the ways in which war painfully rewrites the existences of real, feeling human beings – in hopes that our children will, someday, have the chance to write happier endings to the chapters of our country’s history books.