A House Divided: Dad and daughter on opposite sides of war
By Samantha Groark
(Editor’s note: Samantha Groark is a junior majoring in English and history with a minor in peace studies. Her father is a Lt. Colonel in the Army. She is attending Xavier through his GI Bill benefits, but she opposes the war.)
In 1974, Philippe Petit walked a tightrope strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. People gathered in the streets to watch Petit performed tricks 1,368 feet above ground. His stunt made headlines around the world.
Less than 30 years later, the twin towers fell and a thick cloud of smoke filled the space that Petit made famous. In the days following Sept. 11, that space became a national space, and Petit’s tightrope became our own. In a matter of weeks, adults and children alike were pushed into a new world, one in which lines were drawn between darkness and light, good and evil, Christians and Muslims, doves and hawks. Ten years later, I still find myself walking a tightrope, staring into the emotional, intellectual and political fog of this tragic event.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a 10-year-old girl who knew little about the Middle East. I did not understand the words “terrorist” or “fundamentalist,” and Islam was a mystery to me. When the towers fell, television bombarded me with images of American flags, firefighters, and the smoky gray of ground zero. Sadness, fear and anger became the cloth of America, and the air echoed with words like “freedom” and “liberty.” Then the wrath of American bombs rained down on Afghanistan, followed by invasion, followed by war in Iraq. And this became part of my everyday life, a sad normalcy for my generation.
My father, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, is my only living parent. He is also my best friend. However, we have taken two very different approaches to promoting peace and justice in the world. For the last five years or so, I have been involved in peace and justice activism. While I poured over writings that explore peaceful alternatives to national and global threats, my father served as a military logistician in Iraq and other duty locations. As a young teenager, I found it troubling to discover the innumerable instances of unjust U.S. military intervention abroad. When I first read the historian Howard Zinn, I saw my Dad in a completely new light.
Picture this: My Dad and I are in our living room. He is reading the military theory of Carl von Clausewitz or Sun Tzu, while I work on a poster for an upcoming community demonstration. Or this: We are at a baseball game and the national anthem beings to play. He promptly removes his cap and salutes the flag, while I stand with my arms folded, annoyed by the mob patriotism. These scenes are realistic portraits of our philosophical relationship.
However, as I slowly undo the psychological damage of 9/11, I have begun to understand many of my father’s perspectives. Recognizing that he is on a journey of self-realization just as I am, it has become easier to listen to him. He, too, is a product of his upbringing and culture, and understanding this has made it easier to find our common ground. We are both fans of Leo Tolstoy, for example, and it was my father who introduced me to The Kingdom of God is Within You, Tolstoy’s book on passive resistance. This is what is so remarkable about our relationship. It’s a tug-of-war of ideas, but we both are a part of the larger struggle of human beings trying to discern truth and the common good.
Rather than sitting on opposite ends of a living room as we might have done in years prior, consider the following scene as our present reality: My Dad and I are eating pizza on the couch, watching a mindless comedy. We begin to talk about politics or his role in the military. He reminds me, as he does often, of Clausewitz’s suggestion that the military is only an instrument of our elected civilian leadership. I counter by asking if he is at all troubled by the enormous loss of blood that has occurred while serving under civilian politicians who define war as “the price of freedom.” We banter for a few moments, then some (again, mindless) scene in the movie has us chuckling, and our conversation turns to another topic.
I have not always been so comfortable with my involvement in social activism and its ideological impact. Though my dad has always encouraged me to follow my own path, I have recognized instances where my ideology contradicts my behavior. For example, as the daughter of a military officer, I am eligible to use my father’s GI Bill benefits. For my first two years of school, I kept this relatively secret, afraid that my activist friends might reject my acceptance of financial aid derived from an immorally large military budget. I find it eerie that the GI Bill partly funds my Peace Studies minor. Then again, perhaps this is progress.
Over the past few years, both sides have confronted me. My more conservative friends have accused me of making choices that were harmful to my father and what he represents. On the other hand, some of my activist friends find it troubling that I can have such a meaningful relationship with a man they presume to be a warmonger. Amidst all of this, my own resolve has been strengthened. I have had to accept that I will never be perfectly just or a perfect subscriber to my own ideals. In any case, I walk my own walk. I tend to walk on the left side of the sidewalk, but occasionally I walk on the right, too. I take steps backwards. Often, I walk alone.
The best thing we can do as individuals is to admit that we know nothing definitively. That does not mean we cannot espouse religious or political beliefs. I certainly do. But it does entail a style of listening and dialogue that allows us to use our minds without prejudice. We mustn’t be afraid to truly listen to ideas counter to our own traditions or beliefs. I have learned more from individuals who push me to consider a different perspective, and from novels and films that grant me new perspective, than I have from conversing with those who share my philosophies.
For my generation as a whole, I believe that the greatest threat to our society is not the terrorist’s bomb, but its after-effect on our minds: the temptation to stop listening actively and to fall prey to the blanket animosity generated by prejudices and generalizations. My generation is part of a unique experiment; we have been brought up in the Age of Communication Technology. We have instant access to the opinions of individuals from all over the world. This marketplace of human experience, available for our own contemplation, is what gives me hope.
When asked why he illegally walked the tightrope, Petit said, “When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.” If we consider his words in light of the need for open dialogue, we may begin to see Petit’s stunt as a dance of critical thinking. We all need to summon the courage to leave the security of our own convictions and walk forward to meet our ideological opponents. I hope my generation can walk the fragile American tightrope, open to juggling both traditional and progressive ideas. I hope that we can set aside our prejudices to walk, unencumbered, toward one world and one peace.