The Question

During the Korean War, when I was just old enough to read, I read a newspaper headline that said “Red Army Advances”.  My five-year-old mind conjured up two things from this. The first, naturally, was an image of an army dressed all in red suits, which struck me as strange. The second was a frightening, urgent question, which I asked my mother: “Is there going to be another war?”

I knew there had been a war, of course, and that it had been right before I was born. I knew that my father and my uncles had been in it and had come home, and I knew that the father of my slightly-older friend Kathy had been in it and had not come home. I had a clear if undetailed understanding that wars were bad things, and that people died in them.

And I had read of an army, so of course that caused me to ask what I asked.

My mother’s answer was “I don’t know.” She didn’t say “Of course not, dear”, which would have been the easy answer. But she also didn’t quite say the truth: that there already was another war, in Korea, and that there would always be one, forever.

I was frightened by her answer, and for many years into my adulthood I remembered this with some resentment…hadn’t my mother owed me the easy, reassuring answer? Now, I’m not so sure. For one thing, my mother was only in her early thirties at the time, and World War II had ended only five years before. She was probably, I now realize, just as frightened as I was. For another, I’m fairly sure that even at five I wouldn’t have believed “of course not” — there was the Red Army in the news, and there were air raid drills in school, after all.

On balance, I now think that my mother gave me the best answer she could, however hard it was for me. The other answer, the heartbreaking truth that there would always be another war, is not an answer for a five-year-old. It shouldn’t be an answer for anybody, but even now it remains…the truth.

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