Mommies At War

January 04, 1991|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON. — Boston--MY FRIEND has called to deliver season's greetings and second thoughts. The greetings come seriously, deliberately. A Happy New Year is nothing to be assumed as the odds against it amass in the desert. The second thoughts come more haltingly.

This is what she has seen on her television set over the holidays. Men and women in uniform saying ''Hi Mom'' to the television camera. Men and women in uniform saying ''Hi Kids'' to the children they've left behind.

At least once she heard a small boy talk proudly and sadly about his parents, who were both overseas. The boy was at his grandmother's. One other time she saw a husband holding up a baby to the camera to wave to ''Mommy.''

My friend considers herself rational, even tough-minded. When others sympathized with soldiers who signed up for school and ended up at war, she did not. Joining the army, she said, is like joining the fire department. You have to expect a blaze.

More to the point, she is among the legion of women who heartily applauded the integration of the military, who saw a coed army as inevitable, as right. The mother of a son and a daughter, she did not agree that there was anything less horrible about a boy in a body bag. If the thought of women dying in combat was too chilling, she said, let it chill the passion for war altogether.

But that was theory. The second thoughts she is having these days, as images bounce off satellites from half a world away, are not as tough as her usual style. It is the mothers at war -- especially the mothers of young children -- who have touched her heart if not her mind. Did we -- women, she means -- get more equality than we bargained for?

This is not the first time I have heard unease these days, even from the most egalitarian quarters. Women wonder if somehow it wasn't their pressure for equal rights that landed these younger women in the desert. Their concern isn't unlike the second thoughts about young mothers struggling with infant care and ++ work, with two jobs or one income. Second thoughts about whether life is more challenging or just harder now.

I know what my friend is feeling, have shared her second thoughts. But today, I tell her at first what she already knows. War does not respect motherhood, whether military or civilian. In all the wars of the 1980s, three out of every four people killed

were civilians. Women and their children were not ''protected'' in Kuwait. Nor will they be protected in Baghdad or Riyadh if war comes.

A truly just war, I argue, a war of self-defense, of survival, is worthy of sacrifice. A war any less moral, a war confused in its purpose, is unworthy of any lost life. To say a conflict is worth the sacrifice of men but not women, fathers but not mothers, is to plea-bargain with the gods.

But this does not counter her second thoughts. Remember, she says, when women first supported the idea that mothers were like fathers? Most of us assumed that working beside men, fighting beside them, was part of a trade-off. In return, men would father more and women would become decision-makers. It was a deal we were making.

Now, in the lopsidedness of change, fewer women have made it to the top than have filled in the bottom. More women are on the front lines than in the inner circle. What happened to the deal?

My friend draws a border around the photograph in the paper of George Bush and the fabulous Baker boy. She says in a word, ''Suits.'' The men in suits are still making the policy moves. Only now they have military pawns of both genders.

We are too realistic to think that everything would be different if women had titles of power. But we cannot believe they would be exactly the same.

So these images -- ''suits'' drawing lines in the sand, and babies waving to ''mommy'' soldiers -- become second thoughts. If this is what equality looks like, were we better off before?

Only, of course, this is not what equality looks like. This is what it looks like in the middle of lopsided change, in the uneven, unsettling process, on a path that looks more rugged and more circuitous than we knew at the beginning.

In the desert, the mother-soldiers waving to their children are not a reminder that women have gotten more than we bargained for. But that we have gotten so much less.

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