Fighting Our Fathers' Wars

One of the biggest ideological battles of all time has been between the concept of free will and the concept of predestination, or walking the path that God and/or our Fathers have set for us. Iraq is no exception.

Last September, President George W. Bush blurted out his most controversial justification for attacking Iraq and Saddam Hussein. "After all," the President said, "this is the guy who tried to kill my dad." Many politicians said this was a Bush vendetta. No doubt, but maybe it's deeper.

"The more insight one gains into the unintentional and unconscious manipulation of children by their parents, the fewer illusions one has about the possibility of changing the world." That's a snippet from Alice Miller's seminal book, "Prisoners of Childhood."

Miller focuses on narcissism, a psychological disorder in adults she feels has gotten a bad name. The Oxford Dictionary calls narcissism, "a mental state in which there is self-worship and an excessive interest in one's own perfection" --or, as we say with friends, being stuck on yourself. But Miller argues that narcissism is a valuable stage in a child's development. Children are born thinking they are the center of the world. Disabusing them of this notion too early, especially by giving them a mission to fulfill, can turn them into emotional clones of their parents.

So Bush the First decided to enter Iraq. He failed to get Saddam. Meanwhile, he raised his three sons to navigate the intertwining rivers of money and politics. Neil and George bought and sold companies. George and Jeb went into politics. They had big shoes to fill. By all mainstream standards, they succeeded, especially George.

If your father is president, it's pretty hard to dismiss his ideas and his choice of battles. It's even harder to walk away from fighting those battles yourself. Alice Miller argues that kids of overachievers unconsciously follow their parents' patterns. We all want to be immortal, and having children -- then browbeating them into thinking what we think -- is the easiest way to achieve that.

But what if kids don't follow the script? For George W. Bush, rebelling may have meant not only rejecting his father, but rejecting God and Country as well. Miller hints that challenging our powerful parents is the psychological equivalent of death. The war on Iraq, like most others, gave us the superficial choice between loyalty to our lineage and rebellion against the ones we love. If we love our families, yet we question what America has become, where do we go?

I won't pretend to know what George W. Bush thinks, but I do know many people who are torn between the false dichotomy of patriotism and intellectual freedom. This loop of conflicting thoughts forms the dead-end, suburban cul-de-sac of American identity. I love America. I criticize its methods. I love America. I hate America. I love, I hate. I can't understand.

So we retreat. Countries are our parents, telling us who we are and what we can do. America the father, come back from war, shows us with his body he is weary, but tells us to march on.

Miller's texts, and many others, allow us to create political change through our personal interactions. Do we always have to be right? Can we tolerate new ideas and thoughts? We will never end wars if we can't imagine evolving, in our own small battles, from combatant to diplomat. The feeling that we're conscripted soldiers in wars we didn't choose -- Israeli/Palestinian, Christian/Muslim, black/white, rich/poor -- constricts our options and diminishes our humanity. The way we treat each other is not just a sideline, but an essential part of evolution.

In "The Pianist," starring Oscar winner Adrien Brody, an artist survives genocide in wartime Poland. In the end, a Nazi soldier provides him with the substance for survival, an indication that even the clearest conflicts provide surprising glimpses of humanity. It's a terrible thing to be torn between duty to country and love of humanity. Perhaps that's the essential tragedy of war. Most wars today are a continuation of sectarian violence that began before we were born. "The Trojan Women," a 1,500-year-old play, graces theaters around the world now because it mirrors our own time. The crux is the story of a hero tasked with slaying a child who could grow up to fight his nation. The language eerily echoes 9/11. You smell the smoke of charred bodies, feel the ash settle on your shoulders.

Our memory of pain is both individual and institutional. We are our fathers' and mothers' daughters. But if we don't see the possibility of forging our own path toward peace -- the possibility of sharing our inner selves with people we fear -- we're lost.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

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