LIKE STRANGERS on a train, we suddenly turn to intimate conversation. We are sitting on a sofa in a hotel lobby, each waiting for someone else. We share the remnants of a newspaper and silently stare at the front-page photographs of a battlefield in Iraq. I see my own anguish mirrored in his face.
"You're probably against the war," he says, aware that a forum on the war in Iraq has just ended. I nod. We introduce ourselves and by chance, we know each other by reputation.
Both of us were activists in movements for social change in the l960s. He worked in the civil rights movement in the South and his wife, whose name I recognize, was a major organizer in the civil rights and anti-war movements. "But we've shifted." he says. "Both of us support this war."
I want to be respectful of his beliefs and before I can think of any response, he begins to speak of his two sons. "Both are in the military. One is in the reserves and the other is an officer in the Marines, fighting in Iraq right now. They're both opposed to this war."
My mind begins to swirl: Former anti-war activists now support a war that their two sons, both in the Marines, oppose. I have many questions, but they seem intrusive, so I remain silent.
"I can't tell you what a nightmare this is," he continues. "At night, I wake up every two hours, worrying about my son. Is he still alive? Will he survive?" His eyes look down, his face droops with exhaustion.
"If I had a son in the war, I would be out of my mind," I say, feeling enormous empathy. Then I resume my silence, sensing that the best way to offer comfort is just to listen.
"They say we should support the troops," he says. "But what does that really mean? It's such an empty cliche, a kind of fake test of patriotism. I know you want the troops to come home safely. I know you're not unpatriotic. The best way to support the troops is to end the war quickly, and to treat their ailments seriously."
I nod in agreement. Oddly enough, just a few hours earlier, I heard Chris Appy, author of the forthcoming book, "Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides," speak about what it means to support the troops. Soldiers, he said, are demoralized not by criticism on the home front, but by the gap between official rhetoric and what they experience firsthand on the battlefield. It is the government, he argued, that has not supported our troops enough. Washington did not recognize post-traumatic stress disorder for a decade after Vietnam. The government has just barely recognized the Gulf War Syndrome. Even now, Appy noted, Washington wants to cut veterans' benefits.
"Both my sons finished college, got honors, and expect to get a Ph.D" the father tells me, with obvious pride. "You know it's not true that all soldiers choose the military because they're poor or can't find another job."
I allow myself one question: "Why did they join the Marines?"
His answer surprises me. "They disliked the consumerism and materialism of American life. They wanted to live a more spartan existence, to feel a greater purpose in life."
My friend arrives and I must leave. Strangers no more, we turn to each other, shake hands warmly, and say goodbye. I tell him his son will remain in my thoughts.
And he does. A few days later, I call the stranger's wife, who has heard about our conversation. She greets me warmly, if warily, since we hold different views on the war. I ask about her husband's son. She has no news. "When I watch the television," she tells me, "I am so envious when other soldiers are interviewed. I hope their parents are watching. Now I understand what I didn't fully grasp decades ago: Every soldier is someone's child."
And now, as a result of this chance encounter, I know it, too, more than ever before.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle