Love and war

We fell in love, he went into the military, now I have someone new. Should I tell him? Plus: A call for readers to share their war stories.

Published February 14, 2003 8:31PM (EST)

As you may know, last fall this column asked readers to tell us what it's like to be young today, and out of that came not only a week of lively, impassioned letters but a series of profiles of young people, one of which ran in December and others of which will run over the next several weeks.

In the course of researching one of those profiles, I was in Santa Rosa, Calif., the other evening with a 24-year-old former Internet genius who now cleans rain gutters up in Sacramento with his uncle Louie. He and I had been driving around his old hometown; we had dropped in on his high school computer science teacher so he could proudly proclaim, "I'm unemployed again!" and were now dropping in on his dad.

His dad made us coffee and asked if I wanted cream and I said yes and he said, "Well, then I'll leave you a little freeboard." As in the nautical term. As in he's got a Ph.D. in chemistry and another in geology and uses nautical terms around the house, which is neither here nor there except to note that to men who've spent their lives closely studying the physical world the side of a coffee cup is functionally equivalent to the side of a boat. But anyway, we sat down in the living room and started talking about how so many people in that "Love in the Age of Irony" series had dissed the boomer generation.

At which point my young Internet genius friend chose to challenge the whole premise that a generation could be united with any particular feeling or attitude, reasoning that because births occur in a continuous stream, the whole idea of a definable generation seems arbitrary.

His dad, who was a boy when Germany was bombing London, begged to differ. People who have gone through a war together, he said, know things and feel things that are utterly unique to their age cohort. We are definitely marked by our times, he said, by the traumas, the deprivations, the worries.

We seem to be on the verge of just such a generation-defining event, a war that might be over very quickly or might spiral out of control in unforeseen ways, sweeping all of us into a collective experience that could last for years. So I became curious to know how the threat of war is playing out in personal lives. We have heard plenty from the pundits and the scholars who occupy academe's distinguished chairs of this and that; it would be refreshing to hear from those who occupy the kitchen chairs and porch swings. We've heard from the think tanks; what about the drunk tanks?

How is the threat of war affecting your marriage, your dating, your home life? Are you talking with your parents or grandparents about their experiences of war? Are you worrying about your kids? Are you reassessing your plans? Does this seem like déjà vu, or like something unprecedented in history? I'm also interested to know how the threat of war affects the way we view certain books and movies, if certain works of art gain a new poignancy because of the shadow of violence that looms over the future.

Give it some thought, please, and write to us at As before, we will read them all, and we will publish as many as we can.

Dear Cary,

For two years I was involved with a very good friend of mine. This involvement only made our friendship stronger. We fell in love -- and then he went off to the military.

I was heartbroken. Whenever he has the chance to come home to California, he makes every effort to see me. When he was fresh out of boot camp I went to see him across country many times.

He is still stationed across the country from me, but keeps in contact with phone calls and e-mails. In the past month, I have begun dating someone else, and I don't know how to tell him. I love this man very much; he's one of my very best friends. I'm comfortable talking to him about anything, but for some reason I can't tell him this.

How can I let Mr. Military in on my new beau without hurting his feelings? Or should I keep it a secret until I know where the new relationship will go? I love him dearly but we cannot be together under the circumstances. Help!

Confused in California

Dear Confused,

Yours is a classic story, repeated many thousands of times throughout history, and sure to be repeated many times more. War tears lovers apart. It also brings them together in passionate embrace, like sudden summer storms, as the ship waits. Men going to war often try to marry their girlfriends before they leave, knowing that separation brings the risk of breakup.

It's an old, old story. But unless you are willing to break off your new relationship now, you have to tell him. You cannot let him know without hurting his feelings, but it's better to hurt his feelings than to betray his trust. If you wait, you may end up in a vicious cycle of fear and not telling, and then one day he shows up at your door on sudden leave, perhaps right before being shipped out. And that is no time to tell him. So really, life and time are precious; honesty brings honor and dignity to our lives. You have to tell your longtime beau you've found someone new.

Don't leave him hanging.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.

By Cary Tennis

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