It’s September 11 as I write, just shy a full 20 years from the day that changed America. Veterans of my generation—the one that responded after 9/11—have a joke. As children just sorting out language, we believed the word “veteran” was synonymous with “old person.” Looking in the mirror today, we now find ourselves disconcerted to realize that we were right.
A favorite song comes to mind. The old cabaret-style hit “Those Were the Days” features this line: “Ah, my friend, we’re older but no wiser, for in our hearts the dreams remain the same.” What wisdom can be gained from our recent wars, and what dreams can still be held alive in the hearts of faithful Catholics who in good conscience followed God’s plan to serve their country and now find themselves in an America they hardly recognize?
My perspective is limited and skewed by personal experience, but I have noticed a pattern whenever I have the rare quiet conversation with another veteran where we ask each other what affected us most. Strangely, among those whom I know, the answer has never been among the obvious—the violence, injury and its repercussions, or even the loss of friends. With a deep puff on a cigar and eyes shut against a memory, the answer is always “the children.”
There is something fundamental about this answer. Our relationship with God and society rests on it in a certain way. Among the enemies we faced and, sadly, sometimes even among our allies, children were frequently disposable inconveniences or useful objects, often sexualized or militarized. There is no greater insult to the image of the Trinity that resides in and defines our inmost being, and therefore no greater moral injury to our very souls, than the violent stripping of the personhood of children.
My veteran friends, without necessarily putting a fine theological point on it, know this. Most of us went to fight a counterinsurgency—that is, a war with an enemy hidden among a civilian population that is ultimately won or lost in the hearts and minds of that population—with the belief that we could be successful because at a very basic level, people must share some fundamentally similar values. We thought we could find common ground in natural law with the presumptions that everyone wants their children safe, their families fed, and their homes at peace.
We learned instead that there are peoples and places in which the damage to the natural image of the Trinity in the human heart is so deep—imparted through so many generations of its shattering—that those presumptions simply aren’t true. There are people who are willing to sell their burdensome children to human traffickers. There are traffickers who will buy them up to satisfy every sexual proclivity outside of the one that creates a loving family, and there are whole societies generating the market demand. There are warlords who are only too happy to have children as cheap labor, cannon fodder, and excellent weapons against tenderhearted Westerners who hesitate to shoot back at them (or as propaganda jackpots if they should).
Children who survive such a childhood are hardly to blame for perpetuating it, so the vicious cycle continues. Does this sound horrifying? It absolutely is. Imagine the horror for veterans as the things our young and hopeful eyes were opened to abroad are becoming increasingly a part of our own culture and our own country.
More and more, our country fights for the ability to treat children as disposable objects, whose life is only worth whatever value a parent assigns it or chooses against assigning it, and who are objects for our use, not persons for us to love. More and more, children who are permitted to live past birth are trafficked, just as they are by our enemies. In fact, the U.S. constitutes one of the most voracious markets for sexually trafficked children in the world, and the victims are not only children from impoverished countries abroad but, mostly, our own.
Our own burdensome children disappear, unmissed and unmourned, but, like the children overseas whose fates haunt us, they too make excellent commodities. As human persons can be sold and re-sold, their trafficking has begun to outstrip the profitability of drug and weapons trafficking as funding sources for every other kind of organized evil—from gangs to cartels to terrorist groups. We know that the increased freedom to use children as objects doesn’t lead to a more equal, just, safer, or better society.
Still, in the name of such a society, a bill lessening penalties for adults who commit sexual crimes against children was passed by the California legislature, and this week it sits on the desk of the governor. The American College of Pediatricians issued a statement reminding California lawmakers that statutory rape laws exist because true consent is impossible in the case of an age and power imbalance, and rape constitutes child abuse. Meanwhile, the film Cuties, in which provocatively-filmed and barely-clad 11-year-olds “twerk” and perform other explicit motions, continues to surge in popularity on Netflix and meet critical acclaim.
These things, now typical of our American culture, blur into the nightmares of veterans who remember the suffering of the children we left behind in countries where we fought. We know that to reject the personhood of children is to create a dystopia worthy of those nightmares. This is not surprising when to do so is to reject the image of God Himself. If there is any wisdom we brought home from the war, it is certainly the visceral awareness that no country that allows itself to use and dispose of its children—by sexualizing them, selling them, or killing them—has a future course that is not terrifying. If there is any “dream that remains the same,” as the old song says, it is the prayer that God protect them and give us the grace to do our part.
Ms. Cardinalli’s book Music
and the Meaning of the Mass
is available now from Sophia