Three decades before your birth, and long before 19 men crashed four hijacked U.S. planes to protest American policy in countries that most Americans could not locate on a map, I was raised in the clean unease of the Cold War.
West Berlin, East Berlin. Apollo, Sputnik. Freedom-lovers, Commies.
When I think of codified loathing, I see your uncles and me on Vermont summer evenings, a chatty battalion with bowl cuts, tube socks and grape Popsicle stains on the corners of our mouths. We’re allowed to stay out after dinner, and we succumb to the delicious loitering of the warm dusk, too late to start a game of tag, too early to go inside for bed. We take our places on the platform of our jungle gym, picking at the spots where our father’s varnishing job made hard yellow tears.
The three Muir kids emerge from the yellow house across the alley and congregate on their back deck. They are all older than I am. Lisa is even older than my oldest brother, Paul, and twice as big. When she taunts us, she reminds me of the battering ram in our medieval toy set.
At first, we pretend not to hear. We pick harder at the varnish, and the tears fall to the grass. We go to the same school as the Muirs. We all wear secondhand clothes and buy the same discount shampoo at the grocery store. Their father curses, and their mother lets them watch a lot of TV. Our mother makes us homemade bread and takes
us to the library every week. We are fascinated and repulsed by each other, and these feelings rise in our small, sharp voices.
“Hey, losers!” Lisa shouts again.
“What you say is what you are! “Tom calls back, triumphant.
“That’s so stupid.” Lisa thinks for a moment and then fans her hand before her freckled face. “P.U. You stink.”
“ You stink. You stink like a bad fart!”
The jeering never goes anywhere. We cling to our rungs; they, to their railings. At 6, I am too young to say anything clever, but I stick out my tongue and make faces. I feel safe among the thin shoulders of my brothers; they can hit baseballs and ride their bicycles up the steepest hills. Our collective hate drills through me like sugar.
One night, the Muirs toss a dirty doll high over the alley and onto our lawn. Strangely, this abuse offends me more than anything.
I finally break rank, grab her floppy body and hurl it back. She reappears the next morning, one eye cracked.
I don’t recall your grandparents telling us to make peace with the Muirs though I am sure they did. They are World War II babies—a tough generation, resistant to self-love and debt of any kind. My mother carries memories of her friends’ fathers vanishing in France while her own dad, a flat-footed man, grew restless because he could not enlist. My father bears a heavier burden: firebombs smashing his town, his family torn apart, the guilty anxiety ofcoining ofage in Nazi Germany. It surfaced from time to time in our childhood. He doled out sweets to the one child who did not ask for them. Once, he grabbed my wrist as I pitched stones over a ledge at Lake Champlain. “You don’t know who’s down there,” he reproached me. “You don’t know who you might hit.”
Maybe they just left us kids alone, assuming that our usual good natures would stop the Muir War from escalating. But we weren’t good-natured about this. We spied and schemed and made no truces. It was the stalemate that kept us all safe. Although the Muirs could beat us in size and meanness, we had greater numbers. The fragile balance ofpower prevented all-out violence until the sunny day when Lisa led a charge across the alley and into our yard.
The Muirs moved in battle formation: Lisa, first; the others flanking behind, their long brown hair slapping their ears. I shrank back against the steps. The sudden breach struck me speechless, unable to warn my brothers, who were a distance away, haggling over their perpetually changing rules of Wiffle ball.
“My cousin wants to play with you,” Lisa said. Her hands closed over my shoulders.
I looked up and saw the cousin on their deck, a toddler with a lonely gaze, a frowze of blond hair and red overalls. I felt a violent revulsion. I didn’t want to be anywhere near him. I tried to shout my dismay, but fear clogged my throat. The Muirs pulled me, staggering, across the yard toward the dark boundary of alley. If I passed over it, I would never be the same again.
“Hey!” I felt a different pair of hands grab my legs. It was Paul, trying to keep me.
Seconds later, my brother Peter latched on.
“Come on,” Lisa said impatiently. “He just wants to play with her.”
“She doesn’t want to play with him!” Tom shouted.
Hair ripped from my head and sandals from my feet as the Muirs and my brothers yanked me in opposite directions. Suspended in midair between them, I felt my skin going taut over my ribs and one arm slowly popping from its socket. I squeezed my eyes shut, and finally my scream worked free.
You are 10 months old: a tuft of blond; two blue eyes; and damp, hammy hands. You have the frank, curious face of a new kitten, and you communicate through tones rather than words: happy, angry, worried, surprised. You like the homey treble of George W. Bush: You tilted your head and smiled at me when the president uttered the word “A1-Qaeda” during a press conference last week.
It won’t be long before you start learning names and verbs, and asking questions about the war that will dominate your childhood. The Long War. The War on Terror. Who are these enemies, and why are they trying to hurt us? Today, you look out the car window at the baker, the postal carrier, the woman riding her bike, their faces all filled with the sleepy introspection of morning. Tomorrow, you’ll
want to understand why any of them, anywhere, might wake and turn against you.
The word ‘‘enemy” has roots in the Latin in– + amicus, meaning “not friendly,” and in English, it can be applied to either a personal enemy or an enemy of the state. Many languages are more complex: Greek distinguishes between echthroi, “enemy,” and polemioi, “enemy in war”; Russian uses an abrupt, throaty bark for a personal enemy, vrag, related to the Old Norse word for “wolf.”
Our language’s tendency to simplify may indicate why we, as a culture, have so much trouble comprehending the complicated nature of the so-called War on Terror. Your generation of Americans may be the first to grow up thinking differently, but we’ve always preferred plain dealing when it comes to conflict. It all starts with words, that alchemy of sounds and meaning that you’re about to learn.
First, we lump a whole bunch of different groups and agendas into a single foe (A1-Qaeda) with one predictable goal (the caliphate: world domination, Islamic-style). Then we embrace threatening foreign terms that mask the idea that it’s real men and women who are trying to kill us. Politicians and the media bandy about jihadist and mujaliideen in all the wrong ways, according to a 2006 American Forces press release. Americans hear jihadist and think “crazy guy who blows up things.” Muslims hear it and think of someone walking in the path of God. Mujahideen means “terrorist” to us; to Muslims, it means “holy warrior.” Imagine making the substitutions in these recent headlines and subheads: “Why Heroes Target the West” (Christian Science Monitor), “Tape Suggests Why Bosnian General Lied about Holy Warriors” (Reuters), “How God’s Army Is Using Organized-Crime Tactics” (U.S. News and World Report). Who could blame anyone for thinking we’re the bad guys?
Back in the yard with my brothers, Lisa Muir finally dropped me. The ground slammed like a door into my face.
“Fine,” I heard her say, and when I looked up, she was already lumbering back toward the alley. Her siblings hurried after her. The pale cousin began to retreat against the yellow wall, his lower lip trembling.
As they swept the boy back into their house, I curled on the grass, weeping. Paul gently helped me get my sandals back on, buckling the buckles and pulling up my bobby socks. The ground was dry and scratchy, but a few green blades poked through the soil. It was still summer, beautiful summer, and I was still on my side of the alley. My terror began to subside, and I felt a small prickle of pride. I had been at the center of a Muir fight, and we had won.
Or had we?
The more pointless the war gets, the more outrageous its terms become. My personal favorite appeared during the September 2007 congressional hearings on the war in Iraq. The catchphrase was “blood and treasure,” and it suddenly tumbled from everyone’s lips.
Ambassador Crocker stated, “Our country has given a great deal in blood and treasure to stabilize the situation in Iraq. …”
Republican Chuck Hagel retorted, “Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate as we are now? For what?”
As the mother of a potential future draftee, my question is this: Why are we lumping money and human lives together in a grand abstraction?
The roots of the phrase “blood and treasure” are deep, knotting and bulging through the political language of the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly the language of empire. “Blood and treasure” appears in Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” the pamphlet that stirred colonials to stick it to King George:
As Britain hath not manifested the least inclination towards a compromise, we may be assured that no terms can be … equal to the expense of blood and treasure we have been already put to.
To paraphrase: We’ve already suffered so much, there’s nothing England can do to make up for it.
It’s an odd argument for more bloodshed, but not a new one. A century earlier, a small nation rebelled against the British Empire over matters of independence and religion. People took sides, and the nation slid into violent chaos. The insurgents didn’t have roadside bombs, but they torched thatch roofs. They kidnapped and killed
until an imperial army, led by a depressive college dropout named Oliver Cromwell, finally crushed all resistance. Soon after, the British Parliament passed the Act for the Settlement of Ireland. It condemned thousands to death for helping in the rebellion. Here’s where the act slips in that powerful little phrase:
Wìiereas the Parliament of England, after the expense of much blood and treasure for suppression of the horrid rebellion in Ireland, have by the good hand of God upon their undertakings, brought that affair to such a1i issue, as that a total reducement and settlement of that nation may, with Gods blessing, be speedily effected. …
In both Paine’s pamphlet and the British Parliament’s law, there’s a direct relationship between the spender ofblood and treasure and that spender’s moral rectitude: the greater the expense, the greater the righteousness of the speaker. When the spender was an empire like England—with seemingly limitless soldiers and money to squander— it could justify nearly any war by the very cost of the war itself. In other words, the British had lost so much in Ireland that they deserved to grab the whole country.
So now do you understand why we’re still in Iraq?
The first time I went to the midway at the state fair, I spent $8 buying 16 darts to pop a balloon to win an ugly stuffed dog. 1 kept missing, so I kept paying. The dog didn’t even have fur. It didn’t have real ears, either, just plastic flaps that were the dull black of body bags.
After the great Muir Cousin Skirmish, your uncles and I reclaimed our jungle gym. We talked and laughed loudly, parading around our ice cream cones. We built a fort ofbark and sticks in the alley, and no one knocked it down.
But it didn’t take long for my elation to fade into a flat, dull feeling. My ribs no longer pounded when I looked at the Muirs’ yellow house. When my brothers moved on to other games, I began to search for the doll. It called to me in some cryptic and shameful language that I could not explain. I wanted to see its bruised cheek and broken eye.
I checked out the far edges ofour yard and found a few cigarette butts and bottle caps, but little else. Then I shuffled through the damp
leaves of the alley and shook the branches. Nothing surfaced. The harder I looked, the more horrific my mental image of the doll became. Her legs were nearly ripped from her hip socket. Her skull was dented on one side. I half expected to find her bleeding.
I peered through a tangle of green into the Muirs’ yard. My eyes landed on something about 10 feet from their back wall. It looked pale and pink. I thought I glimpsed the curve of a cheek.
After making sure no one was in sight, I hurtled through the branches into the open yard, running, stubbing the grass and the soft earth, my legs too fast. I felt like I was breathing water, the air was so heavy and thick.
A screen door slammed. I didn’t stop. I was almost there.
Then I heard another noise, like a throat clearing. It came from high and far away I finally allowed myself to look from the ground up: big black loafers, legs clad in the gray-blue uniform of men who fix things, the pouching belly and chest that spelled fatherhood to me. He stared, Mr. Muir, as I hovered over an upended plastic sports car— not the abused doll at all, but a toy I had never seen, its white seats wide and empty. Mr. Muir watched me with a puzzled look on his face as if I were just a little girl who had materialized out of nowhere. Heat flooded my cheeks. Before he could speak, I pivoted and lost my balance.
“Kid,” he said.
I was already up again, with my mouthful of earth and stinging knees, scrambling into the safety of the alley. Leaves and branches battered my face, and then I was clear again in my own yard. I glanced back, cheeks burning. Mr. Muir was still standing there, holding the toy in his big hairy hand. In profile, his nose reminded me of a snout. A shudder passed through me, and I thought, You’re the one who … , but I couldn’t finish the sentence.
As he turned away and carried the car inside, I felt a strange thrill of defiance. Let them despise me. They weren’t my family. I wiped my knees free of the grassy stubble. Then I went around the side of our house to the driveway, where Paul and Tom stood on a baseball diamond scratched into the gravel. I was sure they would notice something different about me.
“Ghost runner on second and third!” Paul called from home plate. He crouched down and raised his yellow bat.
“B.S.,” Tom protested, scowling from beneath the brim of his Red Sox cap. “It’s first and second.”
“My last hit was a line drive,” said Paul. “Automatic double.”
Tom shrugged, but his frown did not ease as he pitched. Hard. Paul dipped, waited. When the ball crossed before his chest, he reached out and snagged it with his bare hand.
“That was a strike!” said Tom, folding his arms.
“Too wide.” In the long shadow of our house, Paul’s glasses looked heavy and dark while Tom’s shins wore ugly scrapes from trying to slide into home.
Paul tossed the ball. Tom didn’t move.
The ball dribbled across the driveway toward me. I picked it up clumsily, my fingers sticking in its plastic holes.
“Maybe you can do it over,” I said in my loud, round voice.
They both looked at me like I was crazy.
Pushing you in the stroller around the park today, I point out birds and dogs. Language begins with nouns, with naming objects and people, with defining the self against the other. Naming is other-making. Once, when I was learning to be a nature guide, my boss taught me not to call out the specific trees on my tours because the second you name something, people are satisfied and want to move on. They stop marveling. They stop perceiving.
“Don’t say ‘oak,’” he told me. “Let them try to see its oak-ness first.”
Not “War on Terror” then. Not “jihad.” Not “blood and treasure.” Maybe the only thing I can teach you is war-ness as I know it.
It starts out as just an idea, weighing on your mind. It does not cross into actuality. Sometimes it seems ridiculous: Why do we hate each other anyway? Sometimes you barely think ofit for weeks or months. You feel neither free nor unsafe.
Then, one ordinary sunny day, everything changes. War comes. It claps its hands down on your shoulders. A silly, queasy feeling rises through your gut as if you have just swallowed a lot of bubbles. You’re sure the whole thing is a great misunderstanding.
But it keeps digging its fingers into your skin. It wrenches you to your feet. It threatens to take you away from everything you know, great distances, the furthest of which is death. If you resist, you might live, or you might be ripped apart. Now imagine this happening to everyone you know, every person you love. The sun in your eyes. The grass torn.
What would you do to go back to that moment before it began?
Your Uncle Paul possesses the sole evidence of our attempt to end the conflict with the Muirs, a document that he typed himself on the back of your grandfather’s scrap paper.
between the Muirs and the Hummels
If both families come to these terms, there will be peace between our families.
The terms are:
Not coming into our yard without being asked.
Not starting fights.
People in my family want to make friends with you. I want to make peace with you. If you will come to terms, please sign here.
The space for the Muirs’ signature is blank.
Paul can’t remember if he actually had the courage to take it to the yellow house or if it remained, like our many threats, a work of the imagination. Soon after it was drafted, we moved away to an old Victorian with an alley that we didn’t have to share with anybody. It was thick with rhubarb and saplings and a few stumpy, wrinkled rocks, which we decided were petrified wood. We made weapons in that alley: shields, swords, spears. We were reading a comic series about the Gauls and Romans then, and whenever we played games
based on the stories, we all wanted to take the role of the Gauls. Who likes being the bossy empire? So we practiced together. We prepared for the coming invasion. One by one, we crept from the trees out into the driveway and hurled our spears hard at nothing, to see how far they would go.