01/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dead Children In School Uniforms In Gaza City: A Nagging Thought About 'Collateral Damage'

So Israel chose a non-military target in Gaza City because Hamas had placed its missile-launchers there. Very interesting, if true. Half a world away, reading media that casts every Israeli action as a reaction, I have no idea what's true. All I know is that, as I read the first news report in the New York Times, I kept returning to the paragraphs about the surprise of the Palestinians: police cadets at a graduation ceremony, women in the marketplace, kids finishing their school day.

One sentence obsessed me: "The dead included civilians, including several construction workers and at least two children in school uniforms."

As it happened, Harold Pinter died over the weekend, so I got to read a number of memorial pieces that quoted the playwright's astringent political views. And, it turned out, he too was obsessed with the deaths of children in war. Here"s Pinter, talking about the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s:

There's a little story, I must just tell you. It isn't really much of a story, but in the bombing of Serbia two years ago, there was an ordinary marketplace in a country village. And I'm actually reporting an eyewitness to this event who was in the marketplace at the time. She saw a woman sitting with her five-year-old daughter on a bench in the marketplace having a sandwich. And out of the blue American bombs fell. The marketplace was chaos. About forty or fifty people were killed immediately. And this woman looked for her daughter, who'd been blown out of her arms, and saw the daughter's head in the gutter. Now that head of that little girl was never and would be never recognized by Prime Minister Blair or President Clinton. The death, and the cutting off of the head of the little girl would be totally irrelevant to those people.

I know: Pinter never missed an opportunity to attack the West. But when I read this, I connected his story to a piece of his biography: When he married Antonia Fraser, he became stepfather to six children.

Having kids around -- it changes you. I was paddling around the indoor swimming pool of a suburban hotel with our water-crazed first-grader when the bombs started dropping on Gaza City. All the next day, as we played the pool games she loves to make up, I thought about our spectacular good luck. We don't live in a war zone. The best doctors are blocks away. Food is plentiful. And I don't think our daughter can even spell "hate."

Mine is a sentimental, girly-man question: By what roll of the dice is my family under this sky and not that one? In the media I've read and watched, no one else seems caught on that. The commentators and newscasters have kids, I'm sure, but they've moved on, to Serious Questions of policy and strategy. In the slow news week between Christmas and New Year's, this war nicely replaces Rod Blagojevich.

I wish I could parse the politics and figure out where I stand on this shiny new conflict, but I'm stuck on its opening act -- and on an idea I first encountered in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges.

What Hedges argues: Modern war is directed more against civilians than against armies.

I'll catch up to everyone else soon; I'll be able to hold my own when the talk turns to the Israeli elections, the duplicity of Hamas, the terrible conditions in Gaza. But I hope I don't lose sight of what I fear is the terrible truth of this conflict. Those kids who died in Gaza City? To others, they're collateral damage. To me, they're the point.