How does one define honor for women in combat?

Posted: Mar 27, 2003 12:00 AM
Of course, it was bound to happen. Casualties of war are inevitable. And although we have not as a nation reached the point of actually sending women directly into combat, we now send them so close to the front that it is unavoidable that some of those captured or killed by the enemy will be young women.

Women such as 19-year-old Jessica Lynch, missing in action, an Army supply clerk whose convoy made a wrong turn into an ambush, the same ambush that led to the capture of 30-year-old Shoshana Johnson.

Every human being is made in the image of God, male or female. Every casualty of war is a tragedy, and the sacrifice of every American who serves in our military deserves public honor.

And yet the emotions aroused by our national sacrifice, made by those like Jessica and Shoshana, will not fit into a nice, neat box. Is there time, in the midst of war, to take them out and examine them?

"She really loved small kids. That's what makes it so bad," Greg Lynch, Jessica's father, told the New York Post. What makes it really bad for Dad is thinking of the children this warm West Virginia country girl may never have. Future mothers of America marching to war?

Shoshana Johnson is a mother, a single mother of a 2-year-old child. Family members describe Shoshana as a woman who loves cooking and caring for her baby girl. They were shocked to see Shoshana on television, wounded and in enemy hands: "I thought she was cooking," said one of her aunts. In war, of course, even cooks are in danger.

On the eve of the first battle, The New York Times published the photos of 12 marines -- seven of them were women. Nice try. In reality, the images shooting from our television screens affirm that in this, as in every single war known to human history, the bulk of the fighting, the killing and the dying is done by men.

But the majority of women in uniform are either single mothers like Shoshana or married to a fellow soldier. When they go to war, they make a sacrifice of a kind most men in uniform do not: They leave their babies and small children behind, with no parent to care for them. Their children are orphans for the duration; some will be orphans for the rest of their small lives. What do we make of this special feminine sacrifice?

There is the public reaction and the private one. We are all in these women's debt, because they have chosen to serve their country. I pray for their safe return, as for every American soldier. As an American and a citizen, I honor their service.

As a mother and a woman I inwardly recoil. Don't leave your babies, something within me cries, but to whom? Of course these mothers have no choice. They cannot desert their country. Yet if manly honor has always depended on a willingness to die for one's country, a woman's honor has consisted in living for her children. Where in the logic of war is there room for that reality, the deepest truth I know?

I do not know how to reconcile these two levels. A man is more manly because he does a soldier's work, but is a woman more womanly? Do I want a society in which other women admire mothers marching to war?

The battle resumes. There is work to be done. Get back in your box, warring unseemly emotions.

Bring them home, God, every son and daughter of America. Bring them home, victorious, and grant us peace.