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Controversy summons anxieties in a father


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001

With four sons, three of whom are teenagers, I'm watching our nation's tug-of-war with China with more than a passing interest. Like any parent of military-age children, I'm hoping that cooler heads and reason prevail.

As you no doubt know, the United States and China have been snarling at each other all week over the capture of a Navy spy plane. They hold our plane, its crew and a heavy load of indignation over our actions. We want our people and equipment returned. China wants an apology; we can't quite figure out why.

All of this is being played out before two nations that couldn't look at this situation more differently. To Americans, this is either the latest in a string of high-profile military gaffes -- such as the sinking of the Japanese fishing boat, the crashing of Osprey planes and various wayward bombings in Iraq and the Balkans -- or a case of a U.S. plane being interfered with on a routine mission.

To the Chinese, this is the latest in a series of provocations and insults by America. In a culture that places a high premium on the concept of "saving face," this is intolerable.

In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, the author visited China and slipped his Communist handlers long enough to talk to some real people. His impressions are very telling.

What was the first thing that virtually every Chinese peasant asked him? Predictions on the stock market or the Super Bowl? What is Britney Spears really like?

No. In every case, the people wanted to know why the United States bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999.

Most Americans have long forgotten that incident, at the time chalking it up to either a computer malfunction or human error. Either way, it's far removed from our radar screens.

To the Chinese, fed information only through government-controlled media (let's hear it for a free press) the incident is very much alive and has been portrayed as a deliberate act. The Chinese people don't believe that a superpower like the United States is capable of such a colossal blunder.

The author also noted that, because of China's cruel policies discouraging the births of girls and its diminishing agricultural base, upward of 25-million fighting-age men are loitering in China's cities unable to find jobs or girlfriends. Beijing shrewdly is channeling this growing resentment and anger among these men away from them and at the United States.

What does any of this mean to those of us living in Citrus County?

You don't have to walk very far in Citrus to come across someone who either served in one of our nation's great wars of the previous century or who lived through those trying days as a civilian. The memories of wars, especially those in Asia, are very much alive in their souls. When they hear sabers rattling in distant lands, they get chills.

I have the privilege of serving on a local committee that is trying to raise funds to support Florida's World War II Living Memorial. This experience has reminded me once again of the extraordinary sacrifices that the people of that generation made for many years. We're also painfully aware of how many of those veterans and their spouses and contemporaries are dying each year. The opportunity to honor these heroes while they are still with us is diminishing.

In this era of antiseptic, televised wars, with battles timed for the evening news and ground assaults wrapped up in 100 hours, I wonder if my generation, or that of my children, could step up and be counted as did those of the World War II era.

As a nation, we haven't suffered that sort of pain since the Vietnam era, more than 30 years ago. Make no mistake, the rest of the world -- especially China -- has had plenty of experience with suffering. Do we still have what it takes to survive as a nation?

These thoughts swirl through my mind as I watch the evening news and monitor wire service reports from China at my desk. I look at my sons and the dozens of other young men and women its been my pleasure to meet through youth activities in Citrus County, and I worry about their future.

And I recall what a good friend of mine said at a luncheon last week. "We fought the Chinese once," said this Korean War veteran. "I don't want to do it again."

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