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My brother, a Marine, recently left for his second deployment to Afghanistan. He is in a very dangerous area, and his unit has already lost a high number of members. I live in a politically liberal city, work in a liberal profession, attend a liberal graduate school, and have mostly liberal friends. (And I'm generally a liberal myself.) Only close friends and a few colleagues know that my brother is in Afghanistan. Most people I know oppose the war in Afghanistan and the military. People often say incredibly harsh things about deployed troops. One person implied that it wasn't necessarily a bad thing for soldiers to die and another said that almost all Marines were racist "war criminals" who delighted in killing children. I have to be around these people for school and work. I don't necessarily want to tell them about my brother. It's emotionally distressing to talk about his deployment—especially to unsympathetic people. Is there a graceful way to get them to shut up without having to bare my soul to them?
—A Hurt Sister
The ultimate irony is that these people don't have the insight to imagine what it would be like to live in a world in which there was no U.S. military. Let's just say it's unlikely they would be living in a lovely liberal enclave in which they would feel free to express whatever they disliked about the government. The people who are making these repugnant comments surely consider themselves the soul of sophisticated enlightenment, yet they chillingly shrug at the deaths of young Americans willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and malign our bravest men and women as baby killers. I understand you don't want to discuss your brother with them. Family members of deployed military have a hard enough job just getting through the day. But reluctant as you may be to engage with them, I think it is worth it for such self-righteous people to be brought up short. You don't have to allude to anything personal. If you were objecting to homophobic or anti-Semitic remarks, it wouldn't have to be because you had a gay brother or you were Jewish.
Maybe you can prepare yourself with some short responses so that you don't let these insults go unchallenged. For example: "Elected officials are the ones who make policy decisions, and the members of our armed forces carry them out. You don't have to agree with the policy to acknowledge the courage of our troops." "I'm sure you don't mean that you actually welcome the deaths of our men and women in uniform." "As with every organization, the military has some bad people. Fortunately, they are few, and those who commit an illegal act are arrested and prosecuted, just like civilians." Think of your remarks as conversation stoppers, not starters, and refuse to get drawn into a debate. If someone goes on to insist our troops are war criminals, reply that you'd prefer such sentiments be kept private. You can also authorize your colleagues to let people know that your brother is a Marine in Afghanistan. It would be good for some of these cosseted, smug blue-staters to realize that living among them are those whose dearest wish is that their beloved Marine comes home safe and sound.
Dear Prudence: Giver's Remorse
Last week, my two Yorkshire terriers and I set out for our morning walk. Unfortunately my 10-year-old dog began to poop in front of the elevator, and while I was cleaning up, the doors opened. My other dog, Max, went toward the doors, and the person who was inside the elevator lost control of her large dog, who lunged toward Max. She ended up on the floor, trying to control her dog. Max was killed. The owner of the large dog drove me to the animal hospital and confessed that she had trampled Max. He was a 3-year-old Yorkie who had been abused for the first two years of his life, and I miss him dearly. I am planning to adopt another Yorkshire terrier next month. A dog the same age and weight as Max costs more than $1,000. Would it be acceptable to ask the owner of the large dog who caused Max's death for money?
—Living in a Lonely Household
The owner of the other dog may have been the immediate cause of Max's death, but the whole thing was the result of a bunch of mishaps, and for the sake of your relations with your neighbor and your peace of mind, you should stop thinking she was at fault. Perhaps you paid full price for Max, despite his coming from an abusive situation. But surely you know that there are many darling puppies available for a nominal fee from rescue organizations. If you prefer to buy from a breeder, then that's an expense you should shoulder. However, it's not unacceptable for you to approach your neighbor. You can tell her you're getting another dog, and you were wondering whether she could help defray the cost. If she declines, accept that without rancor. If she picks up her checkbook and asks how much you want, just say you'd appreciate whatever she feels comfortable contributing. Let me add that I'm often called out when I don't consider the legal implications of a letter. But, please, tort lawyers: It doesn't matter if there's extensive case law about compensation for trampled terriers. The point here is not to engage in a legal battle—which could cost the equivalent of several Yorkies—but to avoid one.
My husband and I had a friend who died of cancer two years ago. She was in her mid-30s, we had children of the same age, and her death was shocking to all who knew her. Shortly after her death, some of her friends (whom I do not know) organized a large event to honor her memory and to raise money for a cancer support group in our city. While I think the annual event is a wonderful idea, it costs $250 per ticket to attend, which is more than my husband and I can afford. It also seems like a chance for some people to showboat a little. The problem is our mutual friends, who each year have asked why we're not going. The underlying message seems to be that we're bad friends and not supportive of her widower and children. I give a donation that I can afford directly to the charity, but I can't help but feel terrible. Are we wrong not to just suck it up and go?
The way you remain a good friend and honor her memory is to stay in touch with her widower and have her children play with your children. A contribution in her memory to an organization she believed in is also a thoughtful tribute. As for the rest of the atmospherics, you may be right about the showboating and the denigrating of those who don't attend. You also may be reading more into things because you feel guilty about not participating. So stop being defensive. When people ask why you're not going, which is a rude question, all you have to say is: "Unfortunately, we can't attend. I really miss Jen. It says so much about the impact she made that all of you are doing so much for the organization that helped her."
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