Maria Stuart

Maria Stuart
Howell, Michigan, USA
February 17
Maria Stuart is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer. She lives in Michigan with her husband, their teenage son, and Ted, the hyper labradoodle who keeps her from sitting at the computer too long. You can check out her website at or Follow @mariastuart on Twitter.


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DECEMBER 2, 2009 9:09AM

Afghanistan, war and 10-year-old boys

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On the night before President Obama’s speech at West Point, my 10-year-old son, Will, padded downstairs long after he should have been asleep.

“What’s the matter,” I asked as he sat beside me on the couch.

“I keep having bad dreams,” he said. “I dreamed that I went to war and got killed, and when I try to get back to sleep, it’s all I can see.”

I pulled him close, breathing in the scent of his freshly shampooed hair like I did when he was a baby.

“You don’t have to worry about anything like that,” I said. “What you need to worry about is getting enough sleep so you have a good day in school tomorrow.”

He lingered a bit before his dad took him back upstairs.

At dinner the next day, the day of Obama’s speech, Will wanted to talk about how the military draft works.

“What happens if you don’t sign up when you turn 18,” he asked.

“There are legal ramifications,” I told him. “It’s the law that you need to register.”

“Do girls have to register,” he asked.

“I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so,” I told him.

“When are you too old to get drafted,” Will asked, and on and on the conversation went.

“Why are you thinking about all this,” I asked him.

“Afghanistan,” he said.

“What do you know about Afghanistan,” I asked.

“It’s on the news,” he said. “It’s everywhere.”

It’s also a hot topic in school. It seems the fifth-grade boys have been sitting around the old lunch table, talking about joining the military and going off to war.

“Why are we going into Afghanistan,” he asked.

I told Will we were already in Afghanistan, and launched into an explanation starting with 9/11.

“Yeah, I know all about the Twin Towers,” Will said. “But why are we in Afghanistan.”

I explained about al Qaeda and how Osama bin Laden is hiding somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan and that the U.S. wants to find him.

“Will they kill him if they find him,” Will asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe they’ll capture him and put him on trial. But they have to find him first.”

“Do you think it’s a good idea,” Will asked.

“I am not entirely sure,” I answered him as honestly as I could.

As we finished dinner, I told Will not to worry so much about the future, that he had eight years before he would have to register for the draft.

“A lot happens in eight years,” I said.

Then I realized just how quickly eight years go by.

It’s hard to believe that 9/11 was just over eight years ago. I remember making it to work after an early morning meeting just in time to watch the second hijacked plane slice through the World Trade Center on the newsroom television.

As the horror of that morning unfolded, all I could think of was my kid. I rushed the six or so blocks from my office to my son’s daycare; I needed to be sure my little boy was OK.

When I peeked into my then-2-year-old’s “classroom,” there he was, absorbed in play with the other kids, oblivious to what was going on in the world. Watching him was comforting.

He saw me and came running, arms outstretched. I scooped him up and held him close, breathing in the scent of baby shampoo as I buried my face in his neck.

Then, I knew I had to let him go.

My kid happily went back to his play; I don’t think he even noticed that I left.

Now, eight years later, my baby’s in fifth grade, looking toward middle school next year. He’s smart and funny, the master of procrastination and disorganization.

“Oh, I forgot I have homework,” is a standard line of his, always coming close to his bedtime. I’ve finally caught on that what he’s really doing is stalling bedtime until his father gets home from work. Will likes to go to sleep knowing both of us are home, safe and sound.

With a bedtime of 8:30 p.m., stretching the evening out on the nights his dad gets home at 9 or so isn’t all that difficult.

Tuesday night, as it got closer to 8 p.m. and as I readied myself for President Obama’s speech from West Point, my son “remembered” he had math homework.

When he finished the work, he joined me on the couch as I watched the pre-speech punditry. He didn’t want to go up to bed; his dad wasn’t yet home and I knew he was full of thoughts of going off to war.

“You don’t have to watch this or the speech,” I told him. “You can go to bed early if you’d like.” (I knew full well he would much likelier choose eating vegetables at dinner than early bed.)

“Or, you can watch TV in the guest room.”

As Will watched SpongeBob in the other room, I listened closely to Obama’s speech alone, hoping for some clarity and reassurance.

I didn’t bother Will about his bedtime. I let him enjoy the thought that he was getting away with something until his dad got home right at 9.

As his dad took him upstairs to tuck him into bed, I found myself feeling sad and helpless.

You see, when I held my baby boy in my arms for the first time, I promised him that I would always keep him safe from all the wild in the world.

It just keeps getting harder and harder to do every day.

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And know that every day we kill 10 year old boys in Pakistan with our predator drones.
Yes. Beautifully expressed, Maria. I held my oldest grandson oh so tight a couple of weeks ago knowing he was on his way back to Afghanistan soon. Oh so tight. He said don't worry, he'd be safe, and I know he'd like to be able to promise that. It's challenging raising kids in a frightening world, with the news broadcasting at them 24/7.
I wouldn't say no! Actually there're lots of sexy big&tall men and woman on __Tallconnect.com__; and they are actually dating beautiful big&tall people there! now I start believing no weight&height gap is too wide in fron of true love!
I was trying to explain to my nephew the other day what the difference was between a surge and a "dumb war" - I wrote a post instead...
I share your worry, Maria. It does feel harder to keep them safe and innocent these days. This morning my 9 year old son, who I didn't think knew anything about Afghanistan, was asking many similar questions. Apparently, he'd heard Obama's speech from the other room.

My oldest son just registered for the draft last year, an especially difficult task for someone vehemently opposed to war in any form. I think you handled Will's questions amazingly well. I hope that eight years from now, our world will be a safer and more peaceful place, so that Will's children won't ever have to ask those same questions.

Thanks for sharing this lovely piece.
Ahhh, the thoughts of a good mother. If only everyone thought the way you do. We wouldn't need Vietnams, Afghanistans, Iraqnams.

All would be peaceful and warm.
Strange. My son started asking me questions about Afghanistan too this week. I'm used to talking about war with him by now. He visits his father in Israel every summer, so there's no escaping discussion of politics. And Canada has been losing soldiers in Afghanistan every week for the last five years. We had a LONG talk about the Taliban, women, war. And the hardest thing for me was to let him know that there were a lot more problems than answers. This morning when he opened the paper to read the latest hockey news, he saw a big chart. It showed the average lifespan of Afghan native: 43. We realized if we lived there, odds were he'd be an orphan by now.

I do consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to tell him that he will never have to register for the army. Still, he likes watching the news, and I decided a while back to just talk with him openly and honestly (okay maybe I'm a little diplomatic with my opinions on Israel). The truth is we can't really keep our kids safe. We can do the best to create a society where the odds are better. But I worry that if I send them the message that he needs to be shielded from what's happening in the world that he'll keep his questions and curiosities to himself.

I try to send my son the message that he is safer than the vast majority of people in the world, and that he should be grateful for that blessing. But he should also see that safety as a responsibility, and something to be shared and created wherever possible for others. That's not something I can teach him if he's living in a bubble.
This is a poignant way to view our world and this war, Maria. Here's to holding tight to the ones you love.
No matter what's going on in the world at large, it gets harder and harder to protect our kids . . . they grow up . . . it's what they do. Knowing that there is war going on doesn't make it any easier, though. And, like Harry, I am all too aware that in some areas of the world, 10 year olds ARE going to war, and/or are "collateral damage" in a war . . . that thought doesn't help me feel better either.

I wonder if it has always been so . . .
This was very poignant, Maria, and very sad. Prayers for everyone's 10 year olds, and 12 year olds, and . . .
"I dreamed that I went to war"...

in my Maidenform bra!

Sorry, but I just couldn't resist...

(For those of you born post-1960s: Maidenform Bras had a series of magazine ads that depicted women doing something amazing--shooting guns, directing traffic, etc--in all their Maidenform glory.)
I have many similar conversations with my kids. My middle one is 10 and he is extremely sensitive when it comes to war and loss. Surprisingly he hasn't brought up Afghanistan yet, but I'm waiting. It's so hard to convince them they're safe when they hear about what's going on in the world.
A very moving piece. While it doesn't affect me or my children due to age and gender, I find myself constantly cringing when the "war news" is on. I give lip service in public to I support the troops while what I really mean is I feel for all in harms way and have serious doubts about the direction of our war on terror and anyone who is not willing to just admit we are unable to answer Will's simple questions.
It's really heartbreaking that kids here have to have these kinds of thoughts and images haunting their dreams. And it's equally as heartbreaking that kids "over there" have to worry about losing their parents or their homes as "collateral damage" in war.

Rated, for showing so thoughtfully what war really means.
I remember the draft during Vietnam, and I have a 16-year-old son. Scary. Your post is great, by the way.
My six year old watched the speech with us last night. He kept asking "is that right?" about whatever the President was saying. At one point, when something was mentioned about killing someone (the terrorists, I think) he got very concerned and said "but THAT'S not right!" I wish the whole mess would magically go away, but it won't...
This is a very warlike society. We've been amassing wealth at the expense of others for a long time: the Indians, Africans, Mexicans, Latin Americans, the dictatorships of the Cold War--Pinochet, Marcos, Noriega, Suharto--and then Vietnam, Iraq, Iraq again, and now Afghanistan. All in all, in light of the real history, Obama is a decent praetor.
This is so sad and beautiful. Once my son was an adult and never had to go to war I thought I was free to there are grandsons.
It is men who run into flaming buildings to rescue families; it is men who storm onto battlefields in order to protect others; it is men who risk their lives apprehending dangerous criminals; it is men who jump into frozen lakes to rescue hapless victims.

Women, please stop coddling your boys. Your job is to raise brave, courageous men, not effete, overly-sensitive, pussies.

The goal is not to raise a coward to live for a hundred years; it is to raise a man willing to sacrifice his own years for someone else's. Grow up, women.
This is heart-renching and tragic. This little boy and countless others who are 18 or 19 right now and being forced into the military and sent to Afghanistan for Obama's surge (not just to be killed but to kill other children) need to hear from *us. Not just teachers and authorities telling them they have no choice but to sign up but from us people of conscience, standing up and resisting this outrageous war. Showing them that they can say, "sir, no sir." Stopping this war NOW!
Grow up Emma. Those "boys" volunteered to fight. In fact, most of those "boys" can't stand liberal whiners like yourself. They are not asking for your help. They want to fight. They are not baby-killers. They are fighting for, among other things, women's right in Afghanistan.
Everyone -- thanks for the comments. I appreciate all of you reading and commenting and sharing your own experiences.

I agree we need to work for a world in which the odds of kids living long enough to get old are better -- much, much better. The odds are against so many people, and my kid surely knows he's one of the luckiest around. Open honesty is always best with all sorts of big questions, from sex to politics to religion to war; however, that doesn't change the low-grade grieving that some parents feel when their kids begin to cross the chasm between innocence and adult reality.

But I would be remiss not to address the comment from John Knight, who overlooked that women also run into flaming buildings and chase criminals and rescue victims. Women also pilot planes, perform surgery and govern. Lots of us blog, too. Claims to heroism and hard work don't belong just to males.

One could easily argue that women who go through the discomfort of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth have an extra-special acquaintance with the preciousness of life. Until men give birth, perhaps they shouldn't be the ones sending our children off to war.
Maria Stuart,

There is no denying that women do many heroic things. But it would be foolish to equate that to all the brave acts of men.

I never questioned women's appreciation of life. Of course, giving birth can form a strong appreciation of life. But, to say that unless men give birth they should not send other men to war is just silly nonsense. The very fact that there are men out there who wish to harm us negates your silly position. What shall we do? Should we say that only women have a say in defending our country? What foolishness.

Your ten year old son dreamed of fighting a war and you validated his fear. Is that how we raise men these days? Thank God we have boys who were raised to volunteer for scary things whether it be fighting fires, capturing criminals, or fighting in battles.

Your job as a mother and a woman is not to raise a slightly more masculine version of yourself; it is to raise a strong American man.

Your job is not to keep him safe from the "wild" but to prepare him for the "wild". To do the former is to make your son less safe.
My nephew - my parents' only grandchild - is a new Marine recruit. He'll finish his training just in time to be one of the 30,000. Now that I have a player in the game, the whole topic has begun to make me physically ill.

I will always believe that if Bush or Cheney had had a son or daughter in uniform, there would have been no war. The more personal the risk, the less necessary the "sacrifice."
Yawn!!! I had thought that mr misogyny was gone for good, but like COCKroaches, they can be very persistent.
I am on my way right now to tuck in my "big" 6th grader and know I will hug him extra tight after reading this. I keep thinking the same thing, they've got eight years to figure this out before he graduates...but that's not much comfort to the mothers like us who are sitting down right now to email their sons and daughters in Afghanistan. This was a beautiful and heartfelt piece Maria, and one that I am sure echoes across many homes tonight.
Maybe this time around parents will be more willing to discuss what war is and why (if there is an answer to that) we're fighting -- when I was a kid and watched the nightly news with pictures! of the killing in Vietname, the lists of injured, missing and killed in action -- no one spoke of it.

It is chilling to realize that in 8 years all our innocent little 10 year olds may be packing off to fight in a country that has long proven to be un-conquerable.

Your post is very thought-provoking and your son will need all the wisdom you can gather as he grapples with these grown-up ideas. I hope you'll post about that too, since I want to hear some wisdom in the midst of all this crazy-talk.
p.s. I'm thrilled to see this post on the cover!
Maria, I was very moved by this. I, too, have been fielding questions about war from my young son. Today I attended a seminar that discussed the difference in perspective in war photography from Vietnam, comparing the images by international photogs we know so well (guns pressed to temples, naked girls fleeing napalm) to those by VN photographers working for state news services in the North. There were many amazing images of everyday moments in the midst of war--people doing exercises in a bomb crater, a couple rocking a baby to sleep in a gutted tank.

I won't claim that all wars are wrong, but as a mother it's hard not to feel that. What I do believe is that war has many sides, and that to ignore the perspective of mothers and all other civilians is to ignore the soul of a nation.
Tell your son if the draft comes back, I'll eat my M16.
Let him know he dosen't need to worry about this for a long time (in his world) and furthermore there are good men and women out there doing what they think is right for the security of the Nation.

My mother cried when I enlisted, and she smiled and hugged me when I came back from each deployment. Mothers live to protect their young. You have a right to your feelings.
But it's 8 years before you have to worry about your son's choices in the face of war.
Make the time count before he's a man.
Respect and honor his decision, whatever it may be, when he does, and he will always respect and honor you for it, if he has decency in his soul, which given the words of his mother, I am certain he does.
@Andy - wise words, I really appreciate your perspective.
This breaks my heart and makes me feel ever-more determined to work for peace.
I'm with you, Maria. As a mother of three boys I've had the feelings you describe so well. I feel the same way about Iraqi and Afghan children too. War is not just a numbers game but the politicians never learn.
I've had similar conversations with my own son. I had hoped that the war in Afghanistan would long be over by the time he grew to manhood, but when W. decided to invade Iraq I began to worry. Osama bin Laden had to be almost giddy watching the American Army march triumphantly into Baghdad. Resources that could have been used to prosecute the war against him and his supporters were now otherwise engaged, and his cell phone had to be ringing off the hook with indignant Muslims wanting to join his struggle because the arrogant Americans had seen fit to bomb and strafe a sovereign, and overwhelmingly Muslim nation -- albeit one run by a thug. Although my son was only five at the time, I had the sinking feeling that the United States had been lured into a conflict that might well last for decades with Muslim extremists playing the heavy so long played by the Soviet Union. And how long did the Cold War last? 40 years or so? The fear of nuclear annihilation kept the two sides from direct confrontation, but that doesn't seem to be a factor for now. And since our military superiority is obvious, what's to prevent politicians from continuing to insist that our nation is threatened and continuing to send young men and women into these half-fought wars that just breed new conflicts later on. Anyway, sorry to go on so long. Nice work, Maria. I hope world leaders can come up with some solutions that make sense, but I'm not optimistic.
Seems like every generation of parents has some war looming to worry about sending their sons and now daughters off to. Will we ever, ever learn? You capture a mother's worry well.
The reality of life is no one is safe. Seat belts and airbags may protect us but they don't prevent accidents. Crossing the street on the WALK light doesn't guarantee that the car barreling towards towards us will apply its brakes; that the driver has seen us or even recognizes the red light. Maintenance crews routinely skimp on aircraft repairs. And students kill their classmates in school rooms.
Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen are manifestations of global insecurity. The truth is the best, indeed only, antidote to inform our children about the arbitrary dangers of our world whether it be as close as our neighborhood or as far as Afghanistan. Children and parents in Darfur, Rwanda, the Congo, Sri Lanka have been compelled to learn the most painful of lessons: they are powerless to protect themselves from the "all the wild in this world." As a child during the Holocaust, I know honesty is the best policy for continued survival.