My earliest memory of my little cousin Billy is a summer vacation when I was nine and he was four. Our parents had bought us a magic set. I was older and bossier so I was the magician. Billy, with his big doe-eyes and innocence, was my assistant. He would squeak, "Abracadabra!" and I would make things disappear. But try as I might, it only worked on quarters, not Billy. He would always be there, standing shy and quiet and wide-eyed, by my side.
Last week Billy was sent to Iraq. He joined the Delaware National Guard just after high school because he needed support for college tuition. Then September 11th happened, National Guard enlistments skyrocketed, and the tuition benefits were cut. Already enlisted, Bill completed basic training and was sent to Saudi Arabia. At least it wasn't Iraq.
He came back home, got married, got a job and then got called up. Just a few days ago, my little cousin - now 25-years-old - kissed his family goodbye and left for war. This time, the main stage.
Billy's father, my uncle, is a Republican and was originally a fanatical supporter of the war. We got in an argument about preemption once. He told me that if another attack struck New York City where I live and I was hurt, he couldn't live with himself knowing that we could have prevented it by attacking Iraq. He wanted revenge on anyone who might have hurt me or anyone else for that matter. I couldn't agree, couldn't believe that American lives are more important than Iraqis, couldn't imagine preemptively attacking every bad guy in the world, couldn't imagine what that would mean to freedom and liberty everywhere, couldn't imagine that the real motives were anything but oil. We agreed to disagree.
But now everything's changed. Today, my uncle hates the war, more than Saddam, more than Osama, more than anything as far as I can tell. He wishes he hadn't given my mom such a hard time for the anti-war protests she joined. He wishes he'd joined them, too. Like before he couldn't see the truth about the war but now, through tear-filled eyes, it's clear.
At one point, 60% of Americans thought that Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11th attacks. Today, according to a recent poll, 60% of Americans think the government misled us in making the case for war. I wonder if it's the same 60%.
I wish more of my friends knew people serving in the war, but most of us had parents who could afford college and our friends could afford college, and their friends, and so we don't know anyone desperate enough to enlist. I wish no one were ever that desperate. I wish the choices presented to us by our government at this point weren't either to attack or abandon but to actually aid the Iraqi people from whom we've taken so much. I wish the war on terror was really a war on poverty, not a war on Arabs and Muslims. I wish there were better options for solving our world's conflicts, that a strong United Nations could have pressured both Iraq and the United States to respect human rights and international law. I wish that a strong United Nations today could help revive and reconstruct Iraq with the credibility that America's go-it-alone shock-and-awe strategy long ago squandered.
I wish I could go to sleep at night feeling secure that war is only used as a desperate and unfortunate last resort not a blunt tool wielded casually by empire. I wish millions of Americans were blocking every intersection in every small town demanding and end to this war. I wish that President Bush and members of Congress and every one of us felt just as frightened for all the American servicemembers in Iraq as I feel for my cousin. And I wish everyone in the United States experienced as much compassion for the Iraqis, too, knowing that we're all in this world together - that with each Iraqi or American death, we would all cringe with the sorrow and fear that it might be one of our loved ones we'll never see again. I wish that everyone could look at the war with that state of mind.
But mostly, I wish that I were nine years old again holding a plastic wand with Billy by my side thinking that, with just one "Abracadabra!", I could make him reappear standing next to me. Or make this war disappear for that matter.
Sally Kohn is director of the New York-based Movement Vision Project, working with grassroots organizations across the United States to advance our shared values of family, community and humanity. She has interviewed progressive leaders across the country on their vision for the future.