Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren is a State Department Foreign Service Officer who served in Iraq and author of 'We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People''

August 21st, 2013 8:54 AM

Sending a Kid Into the World

I sent off the last of the heirs to the We Meant Well fortune to college. She's a good kid, smarter than me hopefully, and she should do well at school. Though she is more embarrassed than anything about half the stuff I write, her heart's in the right place. It would be very odd if as a teenager she would be any different. Hell, if she was as cynical as me at her age, we'd need to have her see a doctor.

I kept my mouth shut at the college -- there are rituals to these things and dad-confessions are not among them -- but I wanted to say sorry to her more than simply goodbye. My kids all grew up overseas while I served with the State Department (though they of course did not accompany me to Iraq). For most of the time the world was mostly at peace. We started the adventure around the same time that Desert Storm happened in 1991. After a week of silly paranoid concern that the Iraqi Army might somehow hop on a plane and attack us in Taiwan, life quickly went back to normal and continued that way until September 11, 2001. We were assigned in Japan at that time, and like all of you, watched the terrible events unfold on TV, albeit late at night because of the time zone thing. As the second plane hit the World Trade Center, I got up to make some sandwiches to bring in to work, knowing the phone would ring soon and I'd be called in to the Embassy. I remember as clear as glacier water my wife saying "Why would they call you in? That's in New York and we're in Tokyo!" Then the phone did ring and that was that. Forever after I would feel like a shadow looking for the sanctuary of a light.

The world my kids initially grew up in no longer exists. We destroyed it. In reaction to the terror attack, we set the Middle East on fire (still burning), nearly bankrupted our own economy, turned air travel into a form of bondage play, and did away with our democracy in return for a security state that exists only to keep us perched on the edge of fear. Nothing pressed us into these actions; we did them all on our own, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, the NSA amok, all that.

That night twelve years ago in Tokyo, when I was called in to the embassy after midnight? As I approached the gate, I could see a large crowd gathered, not usual for after midnight and certainly not usual in calm-as-dust Tokyo. About a hundred Japanese had spontaneously gathered, some with flowers bought who-knows-where at that time of night. They clapped for us as we walked in to work. They wanted to touch us as we walked by.

It did not last long. Fast forward to March 2003 and a larger crowd gathered to protest the invasion of Iraq, and protest calls blew out the switchboard. Our security people let us out a back gate, saying it wasn't safe to exit through our own front door. In Tokyo. One bomb threat and false positive al Qaeda warning after another followed, hitting a low point when, after weeks of denying it, the State Department admitted that they had shipped diplomatic pouches into our embassy that might have been infected by the anthrax that was in the U.S. mail system at the time. My office was near the pouch mail room and I took Cipro as a precaution and wondered if anything got into my home and my kids' room off my clothes. Threats and terror alerts became a daily part of our new normal, there and in the U.S.

So I wanted to say I was sorry to my child. Sorry we messed up the world for you. Sorry for, what, how many dead since 9/11? Sorry countries where Americans used to be at least tolerated with our awkward shorts and sandals 'n socks are now too dangerous to even visit. Sorry you'll never see the ruins of Babylon in Iraq, or the Pyramids, unless you join the Army. Sorry you will never know what privacy is. Sorry that you, and your children, will live in an America that exists in a constant state of low-fever war. Sorry you will never know peace. Sorry that we not only did not defeat the terrorists for you like Great Grandpa did with the Nazis but, by our actions, gave their cause new life and seemingly endless new recruits.

Sorry you will never enjoy an airplane trip, sorry you will never trust your government, sorry you will always have that tiny glint of reservation when you read the Constitution. And while I am sorry that you'll blame us, you are right to do so. We did it. Some of us actively participated, some passively let it happen. Some that tried to make changes failed to make them significant enough to hold back even some of the water coming over the levies. Sorry, but if anyone is going to fix this, it is going to have to be you. Do a better job than we did if you want to really find a way to say thanks for the piano lessons and ballet lessons, the puppy, for using the car, for me not being too mad when you violated curfew to spend more time with that boy, for the college tuition.

Funny, but I also just sent my last draft for the new book off to the editor. He'll make it much better and I know that, but I have given up something that used to be all mine at the same time. It'll come back different.

We sent my daughter off to college this weekend and while my wife cried about 99 percent of the time, I held back some tears until the very end. While some kid my daughter had never met before said "C'mon, we're going out with the guys from the next quad!" I stood there hugging her not in that room but in a million places where she had fallen down or asked for ice cream or needed a diaper changed or the causes of World War I explained. I didn't hug an 18-year-old woman but a six year old, a 13 year old, an infant in diapers, a two year old angry about being wet in the snow.

And despite my need to hold on to her for just that much more she felt closer in that moment to the anonymous roommate demanding she go out the door with her than to me and I knew simultaneously how I hurt and how right she was to need to leave. The space between us was a fraction of an inch but it was a distance I would never cross.

Back home it was quiet. Just my wife and the stupid, now old dog. I walked outside and saw the trees were still an unbelievable green, but just a hint of yellow, almost too little to really see, more of a feeling. There were nine empty beer cans in the recycling bin and I could hear cicadas. I swacked a mosquito. I'm gonna really miss summer.

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