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Joan of Iraq

by James G. Bruen, Jr.

Dated 23 March 03, the hand-written letter arrived in mid-April. My daughter Jamie did not mince words:

"Well, today a convoy got ambushed. It was a convoy of 2 vehicles. Right now, the only person I knew was a Lieutenant Colonel who sits next to me at our work stations in the Combat Operations Center, which is the Command Center. I am one of the lowest ranking people there. It is mainly all officers.

"We are still waiting to hear about his status. The feelings going through me right now are very numbing. It is scary because the closer I get to Baghdad, the more alert we have to be. The vehicles were hit by R.P.G.s - rocket propelled grenades. He was out investigating the rape and mutilation of a 15 year old girl by Iraqi soldiers who tried to blame it on Americans.

"What scares me most is that I am somewhat desensitized to the news. Part of it is matter of fact because it is a risk we have to face. The other part is that I realize, after this news, that I will not have a problem killing someone if I have to. Afterwards I might, but now the thought of pulling my trigger does not phase me in the least. I guess that's good because I aim to come home in one piece even if some Iraqis don't.

"Tonight we will be crossing the Euphrates. It excites me because there is so much history but scares me because it is a route that has already seen gunfire."

A deployed US Army Reserve soldier in a psychological operations unit assigned to work with the First Marine Division, Jamie was with the Marines when they reached Baghdad. Based first at the Ba'ath party headquarters and then at secret police headquarters, Jamie was one of the few American females to spend significant time in Baghdad before the Marines withdrew to southern Iraq at Easter. She got used to sleeping through bombings and to the constant "pop, pop" of gunfire in Baghdad. "I had a great time in Baghdad," she said by e-mail in late April; "kinda sad to leave. I was getting good at driving my humvee through the crowds. I am gonna be dangerous in D.C. I think I own all the roads. Too bad I won't have my m203 (m16 with a grenade launcher on it) to stop traffic. That helps." She never had to pull the trigger.

Other Americans did pull their triggers. Newspapers touted their heroics. The Washington Post's almost breathless initial coverage of Pfc. Jessica Lynch's rescue all but suggested she would have won the war by herself if she had not run out of ammunition when her convoy was ambushed. But the press also ran stories about soldiers who did not want their wives to know they had killed and about the heartache soldiers experienced from killing children.

When Jamie left home for the Middle East, my prayer was that she would not have to do or see anything a person should not have to do or see. We have witnessed the horrible suffering of combat soldiers in the aftermath of the wars of the last century. Those who survived this war will also have to live with what they have seen and done. How many of our troops are now killers? How many killed civilians in good faith at dangerous checkpoints? What psychological scars will they have? How many will have nightmares, or abuse drugs or alcohol, as a result of the war?

And why has America chosen to expose its women to combat?

In 1994, ostensibly to enhance women's career opportunities in the military, the Clinton Administration eliminated the Department of Defense's "risk rule," which kept women in support units away from the front lines. It also eliminated "substantial risk of capture" as a factor preventing involuntary assignment of women to many positions in the military. The common belief that women could serve without undue exposure to combat should have disappeared then, but it did not. My wife, Carol, for example, broke out in shingles when she finally understood that Jamie was not safely behind at the "resort" Camp Doha in Kuwait, but had instead crossed into Iraq with the first wave of Marine fighters. Suddenly, she knew Jamie's M-16 with its attached grenade launcher was a weapon of war and self-preservation, not an idle accoutrement toted by a kid on a lark. For many Americans, the Bush Administration's decision to attack Iraq brought the same reality home when Pfc. Lori Piestewa, a Hopi single mother of two, was killed in the ambush in which Spec. Shoshana Johnson, also a single mother, and Pfc. Lynch were captured by Iraqis.

"This war," wrote Mary Mitchell in the Chicago Sun-Times, "opened our eyes to the high price women pay for equality. We saw mothers leave home like men, fight like men and die like men. Although all of these war deaths were hard on all families, when young children are suddenly without a mother and a father, it is a heartbreaking tragedy."

Not everyone, though, thought the tragedy heartbreaking. The Des Moines Register editorialized that the "fairly evenhanded public reaction [to Pfc. Lori Piestewa's death] is a shift from recent times when outrage over wives and mothers and daughters coming home in body bags was more likely." The first Gulf War "began to beat back stereotypes. This war is shredding them," chortled the Register. Individual women can "best weigh the pros and cons of volunteering" and having their "children left behind," it said; "remove the last barriers, and let those who meet all the requirements prove themselves in every military job."

Why? Why should we allow mothers leave home, fight, die, and leave their children orphans? And why should we give them more opportunity to do so by opening all military jobs to them? For equality? Are we so really callous that we invoke equality to salute a lack of outrage at wives and mothers and daughters and sisters coming home in body bags? For equality, Pfc. Lori Piestewa's kids are orphans who no longer have a mom but instead have a Phoenix mountain peak previously named for Indian whores now renamed for their mom. Maybe they'll get a highway named for her, too.

Isn't raising her children a mother's primary responsibility? The image of woman as mother invokes thoughts of a nurturing care giver, someone devoted to another person, her child. This is true even of mothers at war. "The many mothers here [on the road to Baghdad] openly mourn missed birthdays, first steps, and bedtime stories, with what seems a greater intensity than the fathers do," wrote the Christian Science Monitor's Ann Scott Tyson. But, superimpose another image: that of the soldier who kills. As a nation, do we want our children raised by mothers with an overriding responsibility to go to war to kill and be killed? Do we want our children raised by women who have killed? "Men can coarsen and toughen women for the battlefield, making them accomplished killers," wrote Wesley Pruden, editor in chief of the Washington Times. "But what kind of sorry excuse for a man would want to do that to the bearers of his children?"

Perhaps, though, the killer female is the American ideal. After all, the decision to let killers raise the children of America was made during the Viet Nam era when America legalized abortion. Since then, American women have killed their children by the millions, and those same women have raised countless other children. And, although it's taken several decades to see the effect, the decision to permit abortion also resolved the question of whether America would send its women to war. If a woman has the right to degrade herself by killing the child in her womb, who can complain that she also can kill in combat? Isn't killing your unborn child a greater affront to a woman's dignity than killing in self-defense during war?

My daughter Jamie hopes to marry and raise a family someday. Her experience at war in Iraq did not desensitize her completely. Her reports during the war highlighted the beauty of the children of Iraq, the poverty of the people, the hospitality of a family with whom she dined in Baghdad, and the grandeur of desert sunsets and star-filled skies. "There have been some real good times and some real bad times here," she e-mailed her sister Judy soon after leaving Baghdad. "I am definitely taking the good back with me."
Come on home, kid. We love you.CW

James G. Bruen, Jr. and his wife have seven children.

This article was published in the June, 2003 issue of Culture Wars.

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