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Children of War

January 20, 2007

For Americans to break our addiction to war, it will take families working together to live year-round the peace and joy to the world that we sing in Christmas and New Year’s greetings.

One of the tragedies of the war in Iraq is that our soldiers, many of whom are sons and daughters of Vietnam veterans, marched off to a war that bore all the warning signs of the disaster in Vietnam. Like their parents, they eagerly went off to fight in a foreign land they knew nothing about, for a cause that collapsed in the light of the actual facts. What does it take to break such a cycle of excitement and disaster?

I’ve been pondering this for a long time. Born during World War II, where seemingly everybody’s father was in a military uniform, I was absolutely delighted to land in a war just before Christmas, in a part of the world I knew nothing about. At 19, I couldn’t imagine that in a short while the nifty little war in this picturesque land of rice paddies and thatched huts would blow up and chew up my generation and Indochina. I had no clue that “my” war would grow more monstrous and more pointless. And that I’d become a cynical, prematurely old codger, who lived in intense memories of military misadventures more than in the place where I worked and went to college after getting out of the Army.

War stamps a harsh imprint on young soldiers, whether you were a survivor of brutal battle or just another cog in the killing machine. I found it hard to talk to children, happily playing with war toys. It wasn’t any easier talking with adults about those unbelievable experiences that turned a teenager gung-ho for glory into a wised up 20-year-old experienced in war, but not in life.

The allure of war is all that dangerous excitement. The wisdom of peace is often harder to convey. It takes unusual creativity and commitment.

“Vietnam: Our Father Daughter Journey” (Philmark Press), a new collection of photos and commentary by Ed and Zoeann Murphy, is the very model of creative commitment. “When I asked my father how the war affected him, he always said, ‘Vietnam lives in my soul,’” Zoeann Murphy notes in the introduction.

This attractive paper back book – the cover photo portrays an older Vietnamese man studiously reading a newspaper – invites us into the life of a war veteran’s family centered on working for “peace and reconciliation between warring nations, cultures, and communities.” In alternating chapters, father and daughter tell us their perspectives on a topic that bitterly divided many families during the Vietnam War.

“Many men left their war behind in Vietnam. I brought it home, to family, community, into my marriage and it became part of my children’s lives,” writes Ed Murphy, an energetic organizer of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Vietnam Veterans of America, post-traumatic stress programs, and reconciliation trips back to Vietnam. “I returned to Vietnam when Zoe was 11 and Jack was 5 years old. Lin had to explain why their daddy returned to the war zone. I came home with stories, photos and then Vietnamese for visits. Vietnam became an integral part of their lives, more country than war.”

From Zoe’s perspective, it was a mystery why Vietnam had such a grip on her Dad. “Part of me is shaped forever by the years my father spent in Vietnam, and how those years shaped him, and then, all our family. It’s not easy for me to make sense of this.”

In 2001, Zoe accompanied her father on one of his trips to Vietnam. She was struck by the beauty of the land and people and took a series of riveting photos that provide an arresting counterpoint to Ed’s war memories. She saw the fruits of her father’s work for peace. “Our plane arrived in Hanoi mid-afternoon. Almost immediately as we drove away from the airport the war began to recede. Landscapes, faces, smells, tastes, and sounds began to shape my sense of this place.”

This family saga suggests a way to break war’s cycle. Visiting countries we fought wars with is a wonderful way of fostering healing. But why wait for the next war and the anxiety of watching youngsters march off to fight in some foreign land for some dubious cause. How about an historic family adventure: Join a citizen-exchange trip to experience first-hand countries and people our leaders want to invade.

Think that’s idealistic? In 1983, an 11-year-old girl from Maine named Samantha Smith traveled to the Soviet Union with her parents to ask Soviet leaders if we could have peace between our nations, rather than a nuclear war. She was widely featured in the news in both nations. Tens of thousands of Americans and Soviet citizens took up the same idea. Not long afterwards, in 1988, American and Soviet leaders ended the 40-year hostilities of the Cold War.

For those of us who participated in that successful citizen diplomacy campaign, it was a highlight of our lives. It had a great impact, I think, on my sons—who chose not to follow in my military path. And, I believe, it saved the world from a catastrophic war.

Now we’re again embroiled in a senseless war, with saber-rattling aimed at yet more countries. Americans have a hard choice. Shall our children be perpetual soldiers—or live the spirit of Christmas all year, and be peacemakers?

For more information on “Vietnam: Our Father Daughter Journey”: murphysvietnam.blogspot.com

Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.