Family Ties and the Warrior's World


Boston. A young soldier-couple in the Saudi desert writing a letter to their 8-month-old baby at home with grandma. A reservist and mother called to duty and pleading for enough time to wean her baby. A single father searching for someone to care for his children when their designated guardian and grandparent cannot.

The tag line, if one is needed, is straightforward: This Is Not Your Father's Army.

The volunteer force, the "this-is-my-job" military of the 1990s, is a product of all the social change that has come to our civilian society. They are all out there in the desert: Two-Parent Working Families, Women in a (Formerly) Man's World. Single Parents.

It is as if we were witnessing in this war the most intense, highly distilled version of the dilemma of social change. The well-heralded conflict between work and family.

How does a parent balance the demands of the workplace and the needs of children? How can an employer treat people as individual workers -- judge them, promote them on their own -- and account for family needs? This time, however, the "work" is war. This time, the employer is the nation. This time, the children may be not just neglected but, indeed, orphaned. This time the issue is death.

For most of history, the military regarded family as excess baggage. In a favorite phrase of Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., "The army's attitude is: If we wanted you to have a family, we would have issued you one." But now, the armed services are being asked to do what civilians have had trouble doing: to find some balance.

Two bills have been introduced in Congress. Together they are dubbed the "military-orphans bills," although Rep. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who wrote the House version, prefers to call it "The Prevention of Military Orphans Bill." The bills would allow military couples with children to ask that one soldier-parent be kept out of a war zone. They would allow any single parent who is the sole support of a child the same choice.

The bills appeal to every instinct that says, "This is nuts," when a child waves goodbye to her parents. They appeal to the imagination that recoils from "war orphans." But such a policy may be as hard to hone as any corporate family plan.

To begin with, we don't know precisely how many soldiers, active and reserve, would be affected. There are 54,000 married couples in the active military service and about half of them have children. There are 91,000 single parents -- most of them fathers. But we don't know yet how many are assigned to the war zone or how many would choose home.

The problems run deeper than numbers. This employer usually enlists soldiers and trains them before they acquire husbands, wives, children. Marriage, children and divorce happen -- Life Happens -- while in the military.

If a bill gave military parent-couples the option of getting out of harm's way, would the military even train two parents? If a single parent can be exempted from combat, should the military assign by family type? Would such laws lead to a single-parent track, a couples track or an unprepared army?

What happens to morale if soldiers are treated differently by family status? Should a single parent be "rewarded" with a war-zone exemption? As for children, can we really calculate trauma, in the bills' terms? Could a 6-year-old tolerate the loss of "just" one parent better than a 17-year-old could tolerate the loss of two? In a volunteer army, shouldn't a responsible parent know what he or she signed up for, including guardianship?

"This is a voluntary army, but these aren't volunteer children," answers Ms. Boxer. Her bill takes the side, not of parents or the army, but of children. She points out that we already have a rule which balances the needs of a country with those of a family. If a son is killed in a war zone, his brother or sister may ask to be reassigned. If we can afford to protect parents from the loss of their children, then we can protect children from being without parents.

Sifting through these arguments, swayed by one and then the other, I suspect that the country will also seesaw between reaction and reason for a long time. There is both a desire to weave a safety net for the most fragile civilians -- children -- and a desire to deal with adults equitably, individually. What we haven't yet discovered is how.

For many soldiers, the conflicts between loyalty to country and to family now take on an urgency that makes our own workaday tension pale in comparison. In turn, our anxieties make us more sensitive to this military version of the American family story, circa 1990s. But we have learned one thing: The search for balance gets no easier in the midst of a Desert Storm.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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