Growing Up with Ghosts: Memories of War

What do you do with memories?

Thoughts I can control. But memories have a life of their own. And though I’ve been able to push mine away for a while, sometimes for several years, they always come back.

The last time they demanded their due was during the first Gulf War, when I saw Peter Arnett interview an Iraqi girl who looked so much like me she could have been my daughter. So it’s not surprising that they’ve come back again during another Gulf War, with tens of thousands of people already dead and no end in sight.

Where do I begin?

In fall, I think, early fall, about a week before the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

My mother is even more volatile than usual, and my father more angry. And the air in my house seems to be getting thicker by the hour, so thick that by the time we sit down to eat our first holiday dinner, I can almost see shapes in it.

These shapes, I now know, belonged to the ghosts, to the people who had died in the Holocaust – my mother’s mother, my father’s grandmother and father and mother and younger sister and older sister and her husband and their son.

There were times when I was in my twenties and had finally found the courage to ask my father about his family – until then I hadn’t even known how many brothers and sisters he’d had – when I wanted to wear an armband, a black armband with white letters listing everyone who’d been killed. I never did, of course. I was raised to keep my griefs to myself, and such a public display would have been like walking around naked.

But the pain was so sharp! Throughout my childhood, I’d lived surrounded by the dull ache of my parents’ despair, so I was as used to their emotional smoke as I was to their cigarette smoke. But once I understood that the outside world – my refuge from my terrifying family – had caused the terror, I felt as if I’d lost my skin. Where could I go? Whom could I trust? How could I ever feel safe?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my fifty-six years, it’s that war begets war, fear begets fear, and hate begets hate.

I’m not a pacifist, though. If I’d been living in Occupied Europe during World War II, I would have fought in the Resistance. And I think we were right to go into Afghanistan and fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

But this war in Iraq is something else entirely.

I remember reading a long article about Paul Wolfowitz in The New Yorker before 9/11. Wolfowitz was a trusted advisor to the President, the Vice President, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. And in the article he said that Iraq was the greatest threat to American interests and the only way to stop Saddam Hussein was to invade.

And then 9/11 happened and officials from the President on down started spread the fabricated stories of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and links with Al Qaeda.

The great tragedy is that those officials became so enamored of their own demagoguery that they ignored reality. The U.S. had destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure in the first Gulf War, and since then we’d been enforcing a strict trade embargo that was causing severe deprivation. Anyone with even half a clear head could have seen that the Iraqis would not welcome an American invasion, especially after we destroyed their infrastructure a second time.

Think about it. If you were an Iraqi, which would rather have: electricity, running water, food, and safe streets under an Iraqi dictator or chaos and violence under an American occupation?

Add to that the three ethnic groups forced to live in one country and their growing resentment and hatred, and you end up with a vicious civil war that’s destroying a country and destabilizing a region.

I remember one of the original Star Trek episodes about two men – twin brothers? – who were half black and half white. Only one was black on the left and white on tie right, while the other’s colors were reversed. Each man knew that he was the right one, the one who was born to rule, and each was dedicated to killing the other.

Kirk and his crew tried to reason with them, but they couldn’t even hear the words. And the last image I recall is of the two men with their hands around each other’s throat, locked in eternal combat.

There must be another way.

And it’s up to us to find it.

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