Motherhood and War
by Barbara Wilder
For most women war is easy to denounce, because it goes against the basic feminine reason to be — to birth and to nurture. As a woman I look for the logic in war, and can't find it. Wars are rarely fought for any cause that doesn't include some one getting more of something than some one else. Though women are not without greed, the need to kill, or at least inflict bodily harm, in order to win the prize doesn't seem to be hardwired into the female psyche.
Though some women fight in wars, there is no historical record of a woman starting a war. Men have often fought for the love of a woman, and subsequently claimed she was the cause, as in the Trojan War, where Helen had a face that "launched a thousand ships," but poor Helen had nothing to do with it. Paris, the prince of Troy, stole Helen from her Greek husband Menelaus. And thus the fighting began.
Boudicca, the Celtic queen who fought the Romans and almost drove them out of Britain, was one of the greatest female warriors in history, but she didn't start the war. She simply led her people against the tyranny of Rome, after she had been beaten almost to death, her lands stolen, and her daughters raped. By and large women don't fight until they have to. Men fight because they want to, and when they can't, they watch it on TV.
But this hasn't always been the case. In the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras that have, until recently, been considered outside of history — back before men began leading armies against one another — people lived in harmony: first in nomadic hunter/gatherer and then in agricultural communities that depended on each other. In those days the feminine aspects of the human psyche were the default mode. And because there weren't all that many human beings on the planet, to kill each other wasn't considered a very intelligent way to populate the earth. Though these women were fierce protectors of their brood, their fight was against the elements — weather, wild animals, and disease.
But as we moved from pre-history into what is popularly considered "history," the human race stepped into an era of competition. Who could get the most, keep the most, and be the most. This is the male model. And though women learned to compete for survival, the idea of competition and the force behind it is a strictly male construct. In the patriarchal world, women, who once held the tribe together with their nurture and wisdom, were incapable of living without the support of men, and therefore, were forced to compete for husbands. Their sons became currency. A woman who had sons was kept. A woman who bore girls was discarded.
We have lived in a male-dominated society for five thousand years. During that time men have fought wars, and women have stayed home, borne the sons to be slaughtered in war, been the rape victims of the enemy, and soothed the brows of the men when they came home.
But in the early days of war, few people actually died on the battlefield. Weapons weren't all that accurate, and after a day's fighting, the exhausted, yet exhilarated, men would head home, carrying their booty and ready to party.
But as the game progressed the stakes became bigger, the weapons became more deadly, and the number of dead and wounded rose exponentially. In the 20th century war leapt to a new level. The death toll in the First World War was 15 million. In the Second World War it catapulted to 50 million. And for the past fifty some years we have had the power to annihilate the entire human race and most of the animal and plant species.
Historically, no matter who wins, women are the biggest losers, because they lose everything — their children, their husbands, and their homes — and they gain nothing. Men on the other hand, though they may lose the same things, are playing a game they enjoy, and stand to gain power, honor, and the excitement of battle. At the beginning of the 21st century a great many men are beginning to lose the taste for war. But the leadership of the world is still male-dominated and war-oriented.
* * *
As a young woman I was forced to contemplate war from a more than philosophical point of view. Though I, along with many others of my generation, marched in anti-war demonstrations, the reality of war came much closer to home for me. A mother at 20, I carried my baby boy, Sean, on my back as I marched with my husband Rick at my side. But when Sean was four, Rick was called up for the draft. Suddenly my opposition to war left the realm of philosophical disagreement, and became a deep personal concern. My own beloved husband was being ordered to leave his family, and travel to a far away place to kill people. This stretched my twenty-four year old psyche into places it had never been before. Suddenly, I was facing life without the man I loved, and the man who was father and mentor to my son. Rick applied for Conscientious Objector status and was turned down, even though he was a minister's son and had a letter from a psychiatrist that said he would commit suicide instead of killing another human being.
We considered leaving the country, but our lives were in America. We loved our country; we just hated war. We believed in the sanctity of human life. Day in and day out my four-year-old heard us talking about the choices facing us. While he played on the floor with his cars, his parents weighed the options of war, escape, or prison.
Finally the day arrived. Rick went alone to the draft board. After he left, Sean and I ate breakfast and watched Sesame Street.
At the draft board Rick took his physical and passed. He talked with the psychiatrist and was deemed competent to kill. At the end of the day there was only one thing left for the draftees to do. Fifty young men stood barefoot, wearing nothing but their underwear on one side of a white line painted on the floor. An Army officer stepped up and commanded them to step across the line for their country. Forty-nine young men stepped across the line. Only my husband refused. Again, the officer demanded that he step across the line, but he didn't move. The officer got right up in his face and shouted, "STEP ACROSS THE LINE!!" Rick shook his head. "Are you refusing to be drafted into the army of your country, young man?" Rick nodded his head yes. "What did you say? I can't hear you." "Yes," Rick said and his voice was strong and clear, but his heart was pounding so loud, he could barely hear what the officer said next. "You are free to leave."
When Rick arrived the three of us collapsed onto the sofa and spent the next hour just hugging and crying. But, of course, it was just a reprieve. We would fight for over a year. We would borrow thousands of dollars and hire lawyers to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, and we would lose.
With no more avenues to pursue, the day of Rick's sentencing approached. Again we contemplated leaving the country, but by this time Canada wasn't a viable alternative. By 1971 the only country that was considered safe for draft evaders was Algeria. As we again weighed our options, prison became the only alternative that Rick would accept.
Our friends put on their least hippie-looking clothes and accompanied us to the Federal Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. The night before, I cut Sean's long blond hair and helped him write a letter to the judge. His idea. He wrote it on purple construction paper with red crayon. He folded it up and took it to bed with him.
When we arrived at the court I told our lawyer that Sean had written a letter and wanted to give it to the judge. I knew the judge wouldn't have time for a child's letter, but the lawyer said he'd give it a try. Five-year-old Sean handed him his letter. My husband took his seat next to the lawyer, his back to me. I couldn't see his eyes. It was all so stupid. This war that we would not win, that was taking thousands of lives on both sides daily, was destroying my family. Ruining my child's life. And my gentle husband, who could not conceive of hurting anyone or anything, was going to prison where he would certainly suffer violence.
The judge entered the courtroom. I held on to Seanie's hand. The judge took a few moments to review the paper work on Rick Pieters, draft refuser, and then looked up. "Is there any additional evidence to be presented before sentencing?" he asked.
"Just this, your Honor," the lawyer said, and handed the piece of purple construction paper to the judge. The judge took Sean's letter. Sean looked up at me proudly. I squeezed his hand. The judge read the letter silently, and then asked who the author was. Before the lawyer could speak, Sean raised his hand, and said, "I am." The judge then proceeded to read Sean's letter to the court. "Please don't take my daddy away from me, because he plays with me and makes me laugh." Sean smiled up at me again, very pleased with himself. I tried to pay attention to Sean, to the judge, but all I could think about was the moment when they would lead Rick away. I'd hugged him just before we went into the courtroom, but that wasn't enough. I needed to really hold him and tell him how much I loved him. And then the judge was talking again. "In view of this new evidence, I sentence you to three years of alternative service." Oh my God!!!! He was free. No war, no prison, not for my husband, not for my family.
I collapsed from nervous exhaustion when we got home. All our friends were celebrating outside in the back yard. My little boy was strutting around the party accepting his congratulations with a five-year-old swagger. He had no idea what war was, or what prison was. He just knew he had a family and a very happy daddy and mommy.
My story is a happy one. Though we struggled for over a year, we were young and resilient, and our lives went back to normal. Millions of other families have different stories of war. Stories of death, loss, and anguish. And for five thousand years women have not been invited into the discussions that precede going to war. We have been asked only to send our sons, our husbands, and our brothers off to fight. We have been expected to sit quietly and wait until they did or didn't come home, and bear bravely the grief of their loss. Has anyone ever asked if we agree with the decision to go to war? Perhaps if we had been consulted, we would have agreed at times. In the case of the Second World War, we may very well have said yes, this man Hitler must be stopped. But this is a rarity in the history of humanity. What good did it do for us to go to war in Viet Nam? We lost, and the North Vietnamese won, and no one seems to have suffered except for all those who lived in the midst of that war — the soldiers and the civilians who died, needlessly. If I had sent my man to that war, and he had killed other women's husbands and sons and been killed himself, I would be a very different person.
* * *
I just returned from a reunion with ten women who were in the Brownies together fifty years ago. We sat around a table and told our life stories. There was not an ounce of disdain, or even a modicum of judgment. We were just women, who had lived life. Some parts were difficult. Other parts were joyous. The gentle wisdom of age wiped away the pains of childhood, and we were able to simply love each other. As I looked around the room at these women, I knew that they were most the valuable resource in this world. To stop violence humanity needs to honor the grandmothers, listen to their wisdom, and accept their rulings. The young women are focused on family and career, but the older women have lived life. They have known suffering, and they have known joy. They have sent husbands and sons to war, and they have fought to keep them home. They have experienced the angst of youth dissolve into tolerance and acceptance. They have learned that to hold a grudge is a waste of life energy. And they have learned to negotiate the rivers of life. Let the grandmothers step forward and take the reins of state gently from the hands of the men, who are so confused and frightened by the terror that springs from the need to conquer and control. Because mothers are tired of raising children for war. Because mothers are tired of violence perpetrated against them and their young. Because mothers need a peaceful world in which to raise their children. War and motherhood are antithetical. War is destructive. Motherhood is creative. We must use this creativity to create a world without war.
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