Columns » Domestic Bliss

Compatriots in war and peace



Ten years ago, my Korean son became a naturalized citizen of the United States in a ceremony at the Garden of the Gods. The Air Force falcon was there, as was the Ft. Carson mounted military color guard. You could almost hear the bombs bursting in air.

Tiny American flags fluttered in the slight morning breeze. Flashes popped as proud inductees were photographed with their families, their co-workers, their friends.

Behind us sat a smiling, middle-aged woman cuddling a sleeping baby. Her daughter, a clear-skinned 15-year-old of Asian descent, one of a celebrated family of 23 adopted children, waited to be sworn in. On the front row was the oldest inductee, a wizened 99-year-old Hispanic mother in a wheelchair, her proud son clutching her elbow.

From the raised stage, blinding streaks of sunlight flashed off the chests of the city's top military brass. Their wives sat obscured from sight in a row directly behind them.

Much was said from the podium about dreams and dreams come true and freedom and responsibility. Much was said about this being the greatest nation on earth. Our congressman, here from Washington for the day, told the gathered crowd how wherever he travels in the world, he can always say how proud he is to be an American.

As I guided my son through the oath, in which he basically promised to serve our country as a soldier should the nation enter a war, I became aware of my growing discomfort in this patriotic setting. How could I love my country, be moved by the faces around me, worship the ground beneath my feet and the exquisite rocks in the distance, adore the privilege of my life here, and simultaneously seethe with embarassment and barely submerged rage at this spectacle of military might?

My son, thrilled, asked when the fighter jets would be flying over.

A few years before, when he was 4 years old, I dragged this child, along with his 2-year-old brothers and their 12-year-old sister, to demonstrations on Main Street in Nashville, Tenn., to join the protest against our country's aggression in Operation Desert Storm. Rush-hour traffic crawled past as we waved signs at cars filled with tired-looking people who wanted nothing more than to be in their living rooms, watching the war on TV.

My sign said: "Now we know what he meant by 'the thousand points of light,'" referring to the much-televised rain of bombs on Baghdad. On the sidewalk behind me, my sons petted a big black dog tethered by a leash to a parking meter. My daughter stood cold and exasperated, huddling with a group of girls her age.

At home, later, I bathed the little ones, wrapped them in warm pajamas, sang to them and tucked them into bed, then retreated to the living room where America and I were appraised of the latest bomb count. No body counts available. I learned the strangely clinical term "surgical strike." I wept as our generals croaked like trained seals, exclaiming our clean and sure victory.

At the naturalization ceremony, my son and I sang "America the Beautiful," then walked through the receiving line and shook hands with the assembled dignitaries. We picked up his certificate of citizenship, then I dropped him off at school.

On the way home, feeling vaguely like a traitor, I remembered what I had forgotten to say to him in the midst of the hoopla. Had I not been so overwhelmed, I might have remembered to tell him that the greatest thing about this country is the freedom to own and express a dissenting opinion without fear of persecution. When we talked later, I would explain why it was important and distinctly American to be able to protest the Gulf War, the Vietnam War, any war. I would explain that it was essentially and uniquely American to be allowed a public opinion against the sale and proliferation of arms, to disagree with government policy, to honor liberty with true freedom of speech.

We've had that conversation many times over the years, and 10 years later, my son is a reservist in the Army, proud to serve should he be called up in this time of pending war. We have agreed to disagree on the merit of a war with Iraq and to honor each other's expressions of patriotism. He is a soldier; I am a mother. He dreams of liberation and brotherhood; I dream of peace.

We can almost hear the bombs bursting in air.

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