All's up for debate, in love and war

Conflict in Iraq sparks conflict at home, and family members 'agree to disagree.'

Alan Bledsoe had no idea his fiancée was against the conflict in Iraq. That is, until she called him from a business trip in New York to say she had participated in an antiwar rally. "I was surprised," he recalls. "I didn't know she felt that way. And when I found out she was carrying a sign, I really wasn't happy."

As Andrea Candler remembers, her husband-to-be also commented that if his parents found out, they "couldn't get married."

Needless to say, her stint as a political activist sparked a rather lively discussion when she returned home to Indianapolis. Quite a few, actually.

For Alan and Andrea, and for thousands of other Americans, diverging views about the war in Iraq are also diverging views with their own loved ones.

Disagreements among close kin aren't new, of course. But the current war is proving to be a bit different from dinner-table debate about a teenager's curfew or whom to root for in Final Four basketball. And it's teaching its share of lessons about conflict management far from Baghdad.

"We have been inundated with questions on this subject," says Peter Post, a director of the Emily Post Institute. "When I see the potential it has for polarizing people, how stressed they get about it, and how adamant they can become about the rightness or wrongness ... I think I'd just avoid talking about it altogether."

Some torn-apart family members, indeed, are learning to "agree to disagree." Alan and Andrea eventually found this path. "We're not going to come to an agreement since there is no room for compromise," Alan says. "But this isn't going to keep us apart."

Perils of persuasion

But other Americans feel so deeply about the nation's exercise of military might in the world - pro or con - that they want to persuade others. Maybe not all their neighbors and workmates, but those nearest and dearest.

Take Sheila Wallace and her college-aged daughter Katie. They talk every day, and each considers the other her "best friend." But even though their views are as far apart as those of many parents and children of the Vietnam War era, they haven't given up hope that they might change one another's minds - even just a little.

So far, they agree on only one point: that Saddam Hussein is an evil man.

"I'm not a violent person, and any way you look at it, this war is about violence and aggression," says Katie. "Innocent people are dying. How would we like it if another country's military came in to change our government and killed masses of people in the process?"

Katie is a student at Kent State University in Ohio - no small matter, according to her mom, who says the college's liberal antiwar tradition is thriving once again. "Being on a campus like that," Sheila says, "kids can't help but be influenced."

Katie's English professor, a Turkish man, recently brought a handful of Iraqi students into the classroom. They spoke about their country's oppressive regime, including the fact that Iraqis must vote for Saddam Hussein - or be killed.

"They opened our eyes," says Katie.

But her mother thinks Katie's eyes should have been opened to the point of wanting the country's regime overthrown - even if it takes violence to do it. "I don't get it," Sheila says.

"We try to hear each other out," says Katie, "but sometimes it hurts."

Painful or not, hearing each other out may be what's needed in such situations, says Mr. Post, a great-grandson of Emily Post. "With a loved one, we need to back down and show respect for a differing opinion."

For the Wallaces, not a day goes by when the phone line between Katie's dorm room and her mother's home isn't buzzing. They have plenty of other things to talk about, and even when they do disagree, they usually "start to laugh at some point," says Sheila.

"We finally have to accept each other's opinions and love each other anyway," she says. But it's not always easy, she laughs. "When [Katie] became more mature, she began forming all these opinions - and they are usually different from mine!"

Prickly e-mail exchange

In some families, differing views on the war are not a laughing matter at all.

In the past year, Diana Douglass and her two younger siblings have taken to e-mailing often. She lives in Pennsylvania, her brother in Utah, and her sister in California, so their online correspondence keeps the far-flung threesome in touch. But in recent months, the tone of their e-mails has gotten a bit prickly.

Before the war began, Diana lobbied against a US invasion of Iraq without backing from the United Nations. She would often forward petitions or other antiwar e-mails to her siblings. Her sister, who she says is far more liberal than she, was in full agreement. But her brother Kent, who is in the Air Force Reserves, got miffed.

"He would write back," she says, "that 'Saddam is a monster,' and that we must stand up to him as we stood up to Hitler.

"It came to a head," she recalls, "just before the bombing began, when he forwarded a speech by a former Air Force pilot who blamed Bill Clinton's sexual indiscretion for the current mess. I responded that he needed another perspective than the one he was getting from the military - to which he then sent back a comment about 'me and my people, and our stupid protests.' "

E-mail can lead to all sorts of problems, says Post. If you disagree with a forwarded e-mail, simply ask the sender to take you off the list, he says. "And you might also say that this will help preserve your relationship."

Since the war began, Diana has stopped protesting. Her husband served in Vietnam, and she feels that to protest now would be disloyal to the troops. Tensions with her brother have lessened. But her sister is now upset with her for softening her stance.

Diana's brother and sister no longer communicate about the war. And Diana feels caught in the middle. As the oldest, she says, she feels a responsibility to be "the voice of reason" and to "educate the siblings." She continues to forward them both war-related e-mails - ones that are thoughtful, not strident. "Today," she says, "I sent the beautifully written letter by John Brady Kiesling, the US diplomat who resigned over the war, which he had sent to Colin Powell."

Battling, then bonding

Their mother, Diana says, is "sad that her children are quarreling.

"She is trying to be the peacemaker," she adds. "She just wants us to get along."

Their mother often defends Kent's conservative views, saying that because he is in the military, he must be privy to information that they're not. "And he might be," says Diana. "I don't want to discount that theory."

In an odd way, Diana says, sharing their views - though they clash - has brought her and her siblings closer. "This topic is way too important to avoid," she says. "We aren't afraid to disagree. But when push comes to shove, we are a family, and we will always be there for each other."

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