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Mothers in the Military: Maternal Mortality Rate and Its Relationship to Combat

written by Erin Solaro
on April 21, 2010

If there is one emotionally provocative, utterly overused image of servicewomen, it is an image of a woman with her children, before or after her deployment. These images, and often the accompanying stories, are meant to tug at our heartstrings. And very often, the genuine human pain of soldiers separated from their children by war is manipulated by pundits and journalists who oppose women in combat and in the military, and who — shall we be honest? — also despise these women, especially the "immoral" single mothers.

Poor mothers, we are expected to moan. We are expected to think that these poor women are forced from their children, as though the women weren't professionals who chose their career paths of their own free will. Poor children, we are expected to moan, their mothers torn from them, languishing in the care of relatives, perhaps even strangers, maybe even shipped off to Victorian orphanages or workhouses for the duration. As if these families are separated involuntarily, without a plan to stay in touch or perhaps even to reunite.

These are the things we are supposed to think, the emotions we're expected to feel.

Sadly, these interpretations of these images are not without elements of truth. What's left unsaid is that when a mother leaves her children to go to war, people think she's hideous; when a man does it, he's noble, as though fathers don't miss their children, or children their fathers. As though the years that fathers never get back with their children aren't the same as the years mothers don't get back.

There's a scene in the movie We Were Soldiers, where Colonel Moore and one of his lieutenants, who is about to become a parent, discuss fatherhood. The lieutenant asks his commander how he reconciles his roles as a warrior and parent. Moore replies that he hopes being good at the one makes him better at the other.

Now imagine a woman saying that.

A man who loves and provides for his children is not called a bad father because he goes to war for his country. In fact, it's usually the opposite. And if, when he's home, he isn't supremely nurturing all the time, no one condemns him as a bad parent. He is, in short, a human being, and his successes and failures with his children constitute only one part of his humanity.

But women, we are still expected to believe, are different. For us, the main adventure in life — physical, emotional and intellectual — is still supposed to be children. I could attack this belief as self-serving — and not just for men. I could point out that few adults — of either sex — are fulfilled, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally or physically, by taking care of a house and raising young children, any more than they are fulfilled in such a manner by pointless, menial "work." I could also point out that just as men have more to offer their families than a paycheck, women have more to offer the world than childbearing and housework.

Instead, I'd like to dig down to the root of the belief that adult women should always be at the beck and call of children by telling the truth about what motherhood has all too often meant for women.

While doing research for my book, Women in the Line of Fire, I became intrigued by the relationship between maternal mortality and war — the suffering and death that nature routinely inflicted upon young women both during and after childbirth. I quickly realized that the significance of maternal mortality is ignored precisely because it is so great, rather like those superclusters of galaxies that the astronomers kept missing because they were so big.

To put the impact of American maternal mortality into a military context, approximately 762,000 American women died in childbirth between 1900 and 1940. According to the Pentagon's figures, between the American Revolution and the end of World War I — 24 years of war spanning 143 years — American war deaths (both combat and noncombat losses), totaled 637,272. Maternal deaths from 1900 to 1940 far exceeded the total number of those who died in all American wars until 1940. And that high death rate was the norm for all of human history until approximately two generations ago in the developed world; in much of the undeveloped world, such as Africa and Afghanistan, it still is.

For me, these numbers mean that throughout most of American history, from the first Virginia landings until well into the 20th century, childbirth was more dangerous than military service, even in the infantry. The very few years when military service was more dangerous than childbirth were concentrated in spasms of conventional wars that, as always, directly affected only a minority — combat troops. Meanwhile, women died and were maimed by the hundreds and thousands every day, and these routine deaths were accepted as natural and unavoidable.

This, then, must be part of the background of all our discussions of motherhood, combat, and indeed of the place of women in civilization for so many centuries. We die, often as part of the natural course of life itself. No remotely decent man, no remotely decent society, would ask those who had no biological choice but to risk and often lose their lives to literally give birth to society, to also risk and often lose their lives to defend that society. Not when there were those available — men, that is — who did not run such a biological risk.

Today, modern science and medicine have liberated women, not so much from childbearing as from the hideous consequences of doing so. I would argue that now, because we can now be expected to survive, we can also be expected to participate in our civilization as full and responsible equals. Women now serve because service is an ineluctable part of that responsibility. As for mothers, let us speak plainly:

In the military, as in the rest of America, our goal should be to make it easier for parents to have and raise their young, not harder. Yes, that involves a number of specific policies beyond the scope of this post to enumerate. But part of it also involves an end to the constant judgment and belittling and second-guessing of mothers, particularly servicewomen, who, if they were fathers, would be recognized as loving, involved parents who care for their children.

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