Opposing the War, with a Son in the Fight

Stephen Wright, editorial page editor and a vice president at the San Jose Mercury News, talks about the conflict between his opposition to the war in Iraq and seeing his son deployed to Iraq.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

It's not unusual for parents to disagree with the choices their children make as they become adults. Usually, in the spirit of love we go along and offer our best support. That becomes particularly difficult when the choice involves going to war.

That's the position Stephen Wright found himself in last month when his 19-year-old son headed off to a deployment in Iraq. Being a journalist, he did what journalists do. He wrote about the experience in a column published in the San Jose Mercury News called "War Just Got Personal."

Since then, he's received hundreds of responses from parents who agree and disagree with his position about the war but share his concern and anxiety over a child in danger.

If you're the parents of a child in the armed forces, how has this war affected you and your family? Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Also there's a conversation going on on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Stephen Wright is the vice president and editorial page editor of the San Jose Mercury News. He joins us now from the studios at KEZR in San Jose, California. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. STEPHEN WRIGHT (Vice president, San Jose Mercury News): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit about your son.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, he's I think an average kid. He had many choices after high school. He could have chosen to go to college, he could've chosen to travel the world, but I think he was one of the young people, the next generation that was really affected by September 11th, and he really felt a commitment to trying to protect our country and protect our freedoms from terrorists.

CONAN: And you and he disagreed about this?

Mr. WRIGHT: No, we agree that our country needs to be protected from terrorists…

CONAN: I didn't mean that, but you disagreed about his choice to join the Army.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes. Initially, we certainly did. My wife and I really felt that it was a decision that he was making too soon, that maybe he could have been a little bit more seasoned before making that decision. But once we really recognized the depth of his commitment to this, I think like a lot of other parents we really joined with him. We supported him, we attended his, you know, boot camp graduation, have sent hundreds of letters and packages and so forth.

CONAN: And interesting, you wrote in your column about how an abstract issue, the argument over support for the troops, not support for the war, all of a sudden it became very personal to you.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes, and, you know, that's because I do support my son, and I do support the career or at least what he's doing right now in the Army. He's a cavalry scout, and - but the problem is, I think, and from the e-mails I got from people around the country, people just do not see an achievable goal in Iraq, and they're tired of the money and the young people whose lives have been lost in that war. And I think your previous guests talked about it's so uncertain about what is the goal, what's the goal going to be.

And when your son or your daughter or your grandchild is fighting in that war and is putting their lives on the line, they deserve a better answer and they're not getting it. And as parents, I think we're even more concerned about that.

CONAN: I want to read the final paragraph from your initial column. You're describing how you said goodbye to your son as he left for Kuwait. Standing just outside the security line, my wife and I took turns hugging and kissing our son. Tears ran down our cheeks. Reaching into a pocket of his desert fatigues, he grabbed his beret and used it to wipe away his tears. Then my wife and I, with our arms around each other, watched our soldier son disappear through the gate. He's headed into a war we don't believe in but more than ever he has our support.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes, you know, so many people have connected with that part, and that's one thing I don't think the country really realizes is the sacrifice that families make. And certainly the soldiers are making the primary sacrifice, but the grandparents and parents of soldiers who have to go and say goodbye to their son or their daughter, whether it's home on leave or for their first deployment, it's a hugely emotional experience. And for many of us it's not one that we feel particularly good about, given that it's that war.

I mean, many of us would also fear for our children if they were specifically deployed to Afghanistan or fighting the al-Qaida in Pakistan, but I think we would feel that they were on a more righteous cause if they were particularly fighting potential terrorists and potential threats to America.

CONAN: You also learned - last week you wrote that your son has since left Kuwait and gone into Iraq.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes, he's part of a cavalry troop that is south of Baghdad. And one thing that's interesting is, you know, when the general was talking about some of the successes they've seen about bringing peace into Baghdad - but for my son and I think for many other soldiers whose parents I've heard from, where are those people going, those insurgents going who are being forced out of Baghdad?

Well, we're not capturing them, but they are going back out into the countryside, and they are going to be just as lethal in the countryside. And that's where, for instance, my son is.

CONAN: We're talking with Stephen Wright, editorial page editor of the San Jose Mercury News. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. And by the way, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. This is Laverne, Laverne calling us from Michigan.

LAVERNE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

LAVERNE: My daughter just left Monday on the USS Nimitz to go over to the Middle East, and for our family this has come full circle. I was a child of Vietnam. When my dad left for Vietnam, he moved us all back home to our grandparents'. Well, by coming full circle that means I now have my daughter's two sons, and their dad has just come back from the Middle East and he is still deployable.

So we're looking at these boys being with us for a full year. And, you know, the youngest, Conner(ph), is only 10 months, Jaden(ph) is 3 and struggles with this, with their mom and dad being gone.

CONAN: Sure.

LAVERNE: It doesn't - you know, the young kids in the military now, they had the choice to enlist. They knew, you know, what the possibilities were. And, you know, God bless them for having a strong conscious and for being willing to stand up for what my father stood up for and my brothers and brothers-in-law. You know, these are strong kids. They knew when they signed up.

We back here in the States need to do the things such as taking care of their kids, making sure that they don't have to worry about things here so they can worry about making sure that they themselves are safe and can come home.

CONAN: Laverne, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. Stephen Wright, I wanted to ask you, was there a moment in the conversations you had with your son when he convinced you that this is what he really wanted to do and that he was committed to it?

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes, I'd say it was, as is typical with many families, around the dinner table. He had in his sophomore year gone to Washington, D.C., as part of his honors history class, and that happened to be during the Bush administration's - the Bush inauguration. And he just felt such a sense of pride, not necessarily for Bush, but just for America under those circumstances, that the people that were there, the moments of democracy and so forth.

And then he had a visit to the Vietnam Memorial, and that was the point where he recalled for us when he saw somebody had left a purple heart for a soldier at the Vietnam War Memorial. And he was so touched by somebody's sacrifice in that way that when he was recalling it for us there were tears coming down his cheeks. And when you see something that penetrates somebody's soul the way that did, as a parent you'd be blind not to know that that's a calling.

CONAN: Let's talk with Cathy, Cathy with us on the phone from Texas.

CATHY (Caller): Yes. I'm on the air?

CONAN: Yes, you are. Go ahead, please.

CATHY: Thank you for taking my call. I have two sons. One has been in the desert, as they say, twice, and he's back from Afghanistan now and he's in law school, has just gotten out of the Navy. And the other one has gone over there. He's working on his fourth time right now. Each time has not been a whole year, but he has gone back and forth from Qatar to Iraq and so forth. And I and my husband and everyone in my family is just filled with an overwhelming pride for what they are doing.

We truly believe, as do most of our neighbors and most of our friends, that these kids, these boys and sometimes girls, are over there because if they don't fight the guys over there, they're coming here. So we know they are there for us. They are there for us, and we just can't understand the politicians who can't understand that. And I know if one of them dies, I'm going to be very, very sad, but I will know he died for a very worthy cause and I am enormously proud of it.

CONAN: You may not share Cathy's political opinions, Stephen Wright, but I know you share her pride in her children.

Mr. WRIGHT: Absolutely, and I think, you know, of the e-mails that I received back from my column. There was an undeniable support for the troops and for their effort. They've made a commitment to join the military and to support what our country decides to do, and that doesn't mean other people can't disagree with that.

In fact, they're fighting for the kind of freedom that leads to discussion and criticism. But the point that the woman made about what they're doing in Iraq is the one that's most troubling. Are they now really being referees in a religious civil war? Is that the best use of our sons and daughters? I don't think so.

CATHY: Well, we took so long to resolve other wars, and we did not back down and we didn't get all wimpy about it. We said we will stay in it for the long haul, and we've got the courage now in our people that we used to have. I just don't think our politicians do. I think the politicians are working on the next election more than they're working on winning this war. I think what Bush…

CONAN: Cathy, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there because we're out of time, but thanks very much for the call.

CATHY: Okay, sure. Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Certainly. And Stephen Wright, thank you so much for your time. And good luck to Cathy's sons, and good luck to yours as well.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Stephen Wright, editorial editor at the San Jose Mercury News with us from KEZR in San Jose. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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