My cousin got married a few weeks before I turned nineteen. It was an all-out wedding – fluffy white dress, seven bride's maids, parents crying, the whole bit. That's where I met Bill Dwyer, Vietnam vet and pubic school science teacher, a man with strong beliefs but also strong loss.

My mom and I flew out to Columbus, Ohio and drove about three hours south, practically into Kentucky, where my uncle lived. My father decided not to come. He doesn't like big family events and he'd rather be working. For months before the wedding, my mom and I didn't even think that we were going. Neither of us had a dress or a gift for the lucky couple or even liked my cousin. She's vain and has got a loud southern accent. The wedding was planned for Saturday night because of a football game the bridal party wanted to watch in the late afternoon, and they weren't expected to be sober for the wedding.

Bill Dwyer wasn't from the area, either, so he didn't understand what the football fuss was about. When we suggested a late lunch instead of watching the game, he agreed.

My mom met Bill when she was four years old. He'd moved in down the street and spent so much time with my uncle that my grandparents considered him to be another child. Mom's got these stories about how as kids they'd collect dog poop into empty shoeboxes, leave them tied with a ribbon in the street, and hide behind a bush watching to see if anyone looked inside. She's got lots of stories like that.

When my mom was still in high school, Bill, nineteen at the time, enlisted into the Army. Within a few months, he was sent to Vietnam. This was towards the end of the war, but that's all I know. I didn't want to ask anything more. As we changed in our motel room before lunch, my mom told me not to mention Vietnam, Iraq or politics in general. Mom told me that when Bill was station in Vietnam, he'd send her letters and her brother letters and her mother letters. I'm not sure that they sent many back, if any at all. When she was sixteen, Mom went to an anti-war protest in Washington. I don't know if she's ever told Bill, I don't think so.

My mom and dad believe that Vietnam was a tragedy. From what I've learned, I think so too. So many soldiers – young men my age – died. 58,209 American soldiers died and 153,303 were wounded. And for what? What did we gain? Nothing. Boys my age were just thrown away. Now the surviving boys have turned into men, still haunted by the Vietnam War's ghosts. Bill Dwyer is one of those men.

The day before, my uncle had taken me along to pick up my cousin's dress. "I can't believe they sent the wrong size," she said in her thick hick voice. "They should know that a four is just too big." She fixed her hair. My mom glanced at me and grimaced. My cousin had just lost about sixty pounds and was marrying her personal trainer. No one else thought this was weird, just Mom and me, and maybe my uncle and Bill. My mom's not sure how much they've changed.

My uncle joined the service when he was nineteen, too. But he never got sent to Vietnam. He was posted in Hawaii as a ship's mechanic or something. He learned to play guitar during his years as a soldier. And now he plays country folk music and lives in southern Ohio and votes Republican. After retrieving the dress, my uncle and I drove across the bridge into Kentucky and back, just to go into the other state. I told him that it was exciting. He nodded, but I don't think he believed it, either. That's why he decided to move to southern Ohio, though. He didn't want any more excitement. He wanted quiet and faith. He wanted to be able to trust people, though I don't know if he's found that trust here, either.

For lunch, Mom, Bill and I visited a small bar and grill suggested by the receptionist. It was smoky and packed, but we found a small table in the corner and ordered some hamburgers and beer. My mom usually doesn't drink too much, especially not in the middle of the day. When he was alive, her father was an alcoholic, so alcohol scares her. But she and Bill drank their first round of Guinness and went on for seconds. By the bar, someone turned on the football game and everyone else crowded around to watch and yell. My mom, Bill and I, leaned closer into the table. Bill told us about his three sons and his work and how he established a program to help struggling middle school students in the community. Mom talked about me and my sister and my dad. They agreed that right now they were pretty lucky. Then, as the football game rushed down to its last few minutes and everyone started cheering louder and louder and drinking more and more, Bill started to talk about Vietnam. He talked about the boys that he'd left there. He'd talked about how they'd been afraid to even light their cigarettes. He talked about how they didn't know if they'd ever make it home. My mom nodded awkwardly and I stared down at my napkin and twisted it around my fingers.

I didn't know what to say. What was I supposed to say? What do I know about war and death and growing up? Not a whole lot. I'm scared to grow up and have the responsibility of an adult, the responsibility to be a leader. I tell myself that my mom and uncle became adults a lot younger than I am now. They grew up learning how to avoid their drunken father and help their mother and take care of themselves. Bill Dwyer grew up when he was my age, losing his innocence in a guerrilla war. I don't think I'll ever be ready for that change.

After the wedding, at the reception, I watched my cousin and her numerous friends dance and drink and laugh together. I watched her new husband put back shot after shot of whiskey. And I watched my cousin hiking up her skirt and dancing on another man's leg. I also watched Bill Dwyer cry.

My mom described Bill as a bear of a man – enormous, a little rough around the edges, but sweet. Visually, he stands at around six feet five inches and two hundred and fifty pounds. He's clean-shaven with a buzz cut. He wears kaki pants and button-down striped shirts. He doesn't smile much, not until you get to know him.

He sat with my mom and me at the reception. They ate mixed nuts and drank more beer. "Bill," my mom said from between sips, "you of all people know that we shouldn't be in Iraq."

Bill's face, red from his drink, turned redder. "If you cared about the boys, you'd support all they're doing." He loosened his tie. "That's just like liberals."

"You know that I support the soldiers. It'd just be better for everyone if they were home." My mom leaned her elbows onto the table.

"Annie, that's just like them. When we came back," he took another swallow of his beer, "when we came back, do you know what they did?" Bill's shoulders were shaking and his fingers trembled. "They spit and threw bottles and held signs." Bill swiped at his eyes. "They spit and threw bottles and held signs and yelled that we were murderers, Annie. You don't know what it was like." He cried.

My mom reached across the table to hold both of his hands, this giant crying man. "No one does," she answered him. "I'm sorry they did those tings. I am so sorry, Bill."

I pushed my chair away from the table and excused myself to the bathroom. I cried, too. I don't know why. It's not like I've been in a war, or even know this man that well. I almost wish that I did though, so I'd know what to do or say or how to act. But instead, I just splashed water over my face and brushed my hair and stood in the doorway, watching my cousin and her friends dance. They were all wearing these fancy mauve prom dresses, except for my cousin's white one. They'd too much to drink and had left their shoes under the tables. They were grinding into each other and sweating all over the dance floor. The girls' hairdos had come undone, and the boys' shirt buttons had come unbuttoned. They're all older than me, all those dancers, but I felt older. I didn't want to dance like that, didn't want to drink like that, didn't want to act like that. Or maybe I was just still too young to understand? There was this huge man crying at a corner table, and just a few yards away, my newly married cousin danced on some man's leg.

It wasn't right. It was surreal. I'd no idea where I fit into the whole equation. Sure, I wasn't the married one and I wasn't the one traumatized from a generation-old war. But I'd had too many emotions to just be an observer. It wasn't fair, at least not to me.


So that's why I decided to write this essay. I needed to understand war. I needed to understand the whole growing-up thing. I needed to understand how people like my mom and uncle and Bill Dwyer, with so many values and concerns and beliefs, could hurt so much. Why people like my cousin and her friends, only caring about themselves, could be so happy.

War. Why do we have war? Who decides that we go to war? Why does Bill Dwyer support it and my mom reject it, even when they have so much still in common? Mom and Bill both treasure family and love and friends. They agree on how to raise kids. They agree that the world needs to change. Who can we blame for what happened to Bill in Vietnam and when he came back?

Bill's the one who supported the Vietnam War. He's the one who decided to enlist. He's the one who volunteered to fight. If men like Bill hadn't supported the war, then Vietnam might not have happened or conditions grown so awful. But it can't be that simple. Men like Bill actually work and care and really believe. There's nothing wrong or bad about working and caring and really believing. My mom works and cares and really believes, too. She just believes in the opposite. Was my mom wrong about Vietnam? She believes so strongly, and I too, that war wasn't – isn't – the right solution to Vietnam and now Iraq. But whom can we blame?

President Johnson? President Bush?

The Vietcong? The Iraqis?

The hippies? The peace protesters?

The soldiers?

I keep wondering where the father of our nation is when we need him. He's like my own father, not here for the wedding, not here to support my mother, not here to see her family, just because he's got other things to do. Or maybe he's like my grandfather. Where was my grandfather while my mother and uncle were growing up? He was drunk and mean. My grandfather was an inept father. My own father just isn't paying attention. But a whole nation shouldn't rely on just one person. A nation is composed of millions of people. It's obvious, though, that not all people care. During the Vietnam War, apathy led to an escalation of violence. Once people stopped caring, there was no one to mediate between the two beliefs, no one to help my mom and Bill communicate. In the sixties and seventies, if the average American had been less apathetic, then she would have been able to make peace between the two opposing beliefs. The Vietnam War would not have been as bloody or as long or maybe even have started, if she had cared.

Now in the United States, we have two opposite views relating to the Iraq War. We have women like my mother who still protest for peace, and we have men like Bill Dwyer and my uncle who still believe that war is the solution. But what about the apathetic Americans? Where are they hiding? At my cousin's wedding, I found them. They were dressed in prom dresses and suits, guzzling alcohol, dancing. Pretty much, they weren't seeing the world around them. They weren't seeing the war in Iraq. They weren't seeing the genocide in Darfur. They weren't seeing the starvation in China.

They weren't seeing the crying man at the corner table or the middle-aged woman trying to comfort him.

I heard my mom talk with Bill Dwyer. I saw her take his hands. I saw him cry. Who am I to even care? Why aren't I obliviously dancing at a wedding? Why aren't I marrying my personal trainer? I tell myself that it's okay. That actually caring is much more commendable than pure pleasure. But where has caring gotten Bill and my mom? Caring has hurt them with every soldier sent overseas and every grown man remembering his past. Caring has helped them hurt each other, with every peace protest my mom attended and every peace protest that Bill read about or heard about on the radio. But not caring, this disinterest has hurt them even more. At least that's what I tell myself. I can't believe that people hurt so much because they care so much. That doesn't seem right or true or fair.

It's might be spiteful of me, but I wish that my cousin and her friends would hurt even more than they don't care. I want my mother's pain and Bill Dwyer's pain to be transferred onto these dancing youth. I want my cousin and her friends to become adults. I want them to take responsibility and views and think about more than themselves. But really, I just want them to hurt. Philosophers, teachers and parents claim that this hatred causes wars. Therefore maybe I'm the one to blame for the nightmares and tears and bullets and protests of war?