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War Zone

By Rebecca Lawton

IT WAS 1968. While waiting for the morning school bus with my junior-high classmates, I heard someone whisper, "There go the Conns. Did you hear their big brother was killed in Vietnam?" "No." Whipping around to watch as the family's blue sedan passed, I saw the sophomore-age daughter riding in the front seat with her mother. The freshman-age son sat in the back.

"When?"

"About two weeks ago."

This was something new. I'd been reading newspaper lists of the war dead, but I hadn't known anyone among the slain. Not that it should have mattered, but this presumed anonymity removed me from the fighting in Southeast Asia. Even action footage dispatched home by reporters failed to convey the reality of bloodshed and horror across the globe. Inured to the yearbooklike portraits of missing soldiers published in the morning paper, I'd grown accustomed to eating breakfast while gazing at their frozen smiles. I should have been running to the bathroom to retch.

Today Vietnam is no war zone. Recently a Navy SEAL friend of mine, who served two tours of duty in Nam in the late 1960s, returned to the scene of the war. On his visit, he saw renewed cities, jungles healing their defoliated scars, farms green and thriving. Vietnamese communities and families who have regained their centers. Tranquility reigns.

We Americans, however, are far from tranquil. We have students settling grudges with pistols and rifles at schools like Columbine and Santee. We have gun violence to the tune of nearly 100 Americans dying a day, a dozen of them under age 18. We have gang slayings, workplace revenge shootings, attacks by trained killer dogs. Our atrocities recall what a Vietnamese villager told my SEAL friend during the war--that even with the fighting, many Vietnamese felt they lived with less terror than the average American.

"Here we have death from the air," the villager had said. "You have death from within--much more frightening."

Today we seem to grasp the reality of our national violence only when it's in our neighborhoods, as I did in 1968 when the Conn family drove by missing a brother. If it's not our school, our own children, our office building, we tend to read the news from the home front as we read the Vietnam War body counts--over breakfast, as we reach for another piece of toast.

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From the April 26-May 2, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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