A different kind of America mobilizes in the Persian Gulf

November 16, 1990|By Anna Quindlen

New York

WHEN THE POLICE arrived they found the three children alone. They were wearing dirty clothes because they hadn't figured out how to do the laundry, and their father had tacked a note to the wall, telling them how to get cash with his automatic teller card. They were 8, 12 and 13, and they were hungry. There was no

food in the house. Their father had been gone a week. He'd left for the Persian Gulf.

The case of Staff Sgt. Faagalo Savaiki is a worst-case scenario, an extreme illustration of the collision between a changing American way of life and the demands of war. He is divorced, his ex-wife lives in Hawaii, and she couldn't manage to pay the airfare to Tennessee, which is where the children live with their father.

He's back in the states now, charged with child abuse; the children are in foster homes, and the 101st Airborne Division, to which Savaiki belongs, is still in the Middle East.

The world has changed since this country was last at war. It's not simply the shifting sands of geopolitics. In the waning years of Vietnam we were approaching our 200th birthday, an adolescent country still devoted to muscling any comers aside and being the undisputed champion of the world. We've grown up since. And there is nothing quite so sobering as becoming adult and discovering the real world.

The if of war in the Middle East has turned in many of our minds to a when. We know that once upon a time there were formal declarations of such things, but that seems so idealistic now. We remember, too, that once we believed we fought wars for reasons straight from the side of some marble monument. We are realistic about this conflict as only a grown-up, slightly world-weary country can be. We are going to war for oil, and, by extension, for the economy. The president trots out his Hitler similes to convince us otherwise.

The military is as changed as the rest of us. A support group in California reports that many of the soldiers writing home ask about public opinion, about whether we're for them or against them. They remember Vietnam; they know that uncomplicated patriotism is no longer our style.

Eleven percent of our armed forces personnel are female today, more than a tenfold increase over 20 years ago. If heavy fighting begins, a significant number of the casualties will be women. People who yearn for the good old days are sure that women in body bags will convince us that women have overstepped their bounds.

For those of us who believe sons are as precious as daughters, it will simply provide further illustration that war is hell.

There are still plenty of military families with a "Best Years of Our Lives" quality, the mother waiting with the children for Daddy to come home from the gulf. But the number of single parents in America has doubled in the last 20 years, and 55,000 of them are in the service, along with an undetermined number of two-soldier couples.

When they joined up, they were told that they had to assign guardianship for their children; there is no blanket combat exemption in an all-volunteer army for someone with babies to care for, or someone raising children alone.

Most have found temporary homes for their children with relatives. But at least two mothers ordered to the Mideast have left the Army, one because her children would not stop fighting with the cousins with whom they were bunking, and another because her parents became too ill to care for her baby daughter. Both women are fighting to be given honorable discharges.

The military is providing more counseling for its families than ever before. The relatives left at home are tying yellow ribbons around trees and telephone poles from Staten Island to Seattle. This will be a different war, in some ways, than any we have fought before, because this is a different kind of country.

Our reality has outstripped the traditional stories of brave men going out to fight and die for a great cause while their women wait staunchly at home and provide security and normalcy for the children.

We have become more complicated than the scripts of old movies. Now we have brave women going out to fight and die for a cause none of us are sure about while their children struggle to feel secure with grandparents or aunts or uncles. Or a father who instructs the children in how to use his bank card and then leaves for Saudi Arabia. There is neither the kind of acceptance that lulled many of us at the beginning of Vietnam, nor the rage and betrayal that lit up the end. There is a quiet disillusionment: Ah, this again. And for what?

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