When Mommy Is a War Hero

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I’m not, by nature, a war or military aficionado. There was a time, a few years ago, however, when, as scared as everyone else after planes smashed into the World Trade Center, I thought that a war on terror was, possibly, a good idea. It seemed important to defend our country, our children, ourselves, from those supposed terrorists. And after listening to one too many neocons on the radio, I thought that maybe, much as I don’t like war, this particular one was necessary.

After giving birth to my third son almost two years ago, however, I turned off the television and found myself in front of the computer. I nursed and nursed and nursed and read and read and read and discovered sites such as archive.lewrockwell.com and suddenly, the neocon propaganda machines didn’t make nearly as much sense as they once had.

A year ago, my children, their dad, and I were at an airport when we saw many U.S. soldiers, dressed in camouflage outfits. When my then-four-year-old asked why they were dressed that way, I responded that they were soldiers, that they were “defending our country.”

I sort of believed what I said at the time. Then again, I didn’t really know what else to believe.

Today, I know. Today, I saw in the September 24, 2006 “California” section of the Los Angeles Times, the obituary of Army Pfc. Hannah L. McKinney. What caught my eye was her picture: Twenty years old, very pretty. She was also a mom. Her son was only one year old when she was shipped out last November. She had believed, after giving birth to him, that “the military would never send a young mother to Iraq.”

It seems as though she was given all the right reasons that she should join, that “her son would be best served by the pay and benefits she could earn in the Army.” My guess is that no recruiter made much mention of the fact that a few months before she was shipped out, the military had managed to fall more than a few soldiers short of their recruiting goals.

Oh, well. An honest mistake, right?

Here’s how the obituary described her death: She “was killed the night of Sept. 4 after she left a guard tower at a logistics base in Taji, north of Baghdad, to go to the latrine and was run over by a Humvee. After the accident, she lay gravely injured on a darkened perimeter road.” Well, I suppose one could argue that one could just as easily die going to the latrine in the United States, that is, if one were not a soldier fighting for, well, whatever it is that U.S. soldiers unconstitutionally occupying other countries fight for these days. Freedom? Democracy? Homeland Security? Still, I wonder how much Hannah thought about those vague reasons for this war as she lay there, missing her baby, dying.

Even in high school in the eighties, the military seemed cold and impersonal to me. Sure, they were recruiting women then, but what woman in her right mind wanted to go? That sneaky Selective Service Registration thing was reserved only for boys. In hindsight, it was a clever little system that allowed the government one more tool, pre-Internet, to check up on guys. It made me very glad that I didn’t have a penis.

High school recruiting has improved quite a bit with the lovely No Child Left Behind law, which basically gives military rulers carte blanche to government school students. Evidently, Hannah, who dutifully graduated in 2003, was dazzled and recruited and told what a good thing that she was doing. For her son and for her country.

Her baby’s father, also in the Army, didn’t stick around and so she married another man, another Army man. Hannah’s baby seemed destined to be surrounded by war and its consequences. Hannah’s husband said that every time he talked with her, “from day one until the last time . . . she was as depressed as she could get.” Gee, you think? Let’s see what’s supposed to be happening, according to nature, to a mom of a toddler. Well, ideally, she’ll still be breastfeeding, a task made much more difficult when one is, oh, an ocean or two away from one’s baby for months at a time. Breastfeeding a child actually releases hormones that help a mother feel much better. As a breastfeeding mom, I can tell you that it’s true.

There’s another interesting thing about being a mom: Children give you little time to be depressed. Taking care of those whom we help to create gives a mom not much of a chance to navel gaze. When cleaning up dining room messes occurs so frequently that the vacuum cleaner doesn’t go back into the closet, being depressed for days on end becomes almost impossible. When you are taken away from your child, hearing about his milestones via cell phone, knowing that he thinks you’re just a voice on the phone, depression becomes easier, almost required.

What had been a huge and distasteful jump for me in high school wasn’t such a leap for Hannah. She had been accepted to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. The Army, as I’m sure a recruiter pointed out, would finance this education. Being away from her child for months at a time would be okay, as I’m sure she was conditioned, subtly, to believe at her government high school. After all, mothers are no longer really important, with a unique relationship to our children that can never be replaced. Take a look at the parent-oriented magazines, television shows that feature a nanny who teaches bumbling parents how to treat their offspring, the booming daycare business-moms are merely caregivers, equivalent to high-paid nannies. Anybody can give care to a child-right? In our brave new world, are mommies even necessary? It’s clear from Hannah’s recruitment, deployment, and death that the military doesn’t seem to think that we are.

The link between government schools and the military is not so far-fetched as one may imagine. In fact, my thinking first began to change on the war last year when I read John Taylor Gatto’s excellent online book about our educational system, The Underground History of American Education. The more I read and thought about things, the more that I realized how closely our government schools resemble the military. Both institutions condition people to be part of the group, eschewing individualism and true freedom. I also note each fenced-in government elementary facility that my children and I drive by, how much these institutions resemble prisons.

But to Hannah’s child, would there have been a huge difference? Whether mommy was in prison or in the army made little difference to him. Later, he may hear accolades and cheers about his mother from his stepfather, if he survives the Army experience, or from his maternal grandparents, who are raising him. Either way, deep inside, he’ll find it difficult to believe all those cheers. What his psyche is hearing now is what will stick with him: Where is my mommy? Government schools, prisons, and the military seem to do an excellent job of destroying families, whether for an entire day, a few years, or, in Hannah’s son’s case, for a lifetime.

The government schools have certainly done their job with Hannah McKinney. They convinced her that the Army was a good career choice and that she would be safe there, as safe as in her government school. The military took her young, vulnerable, childbearing body and made it into a statistic. One would think that the military might have mercy on a child whose mother was killed in what has been promised to be a decades-long war. But I doubt it: The military marketers will try to recruit Hannah’s son one day as well.

In June of this year, my husband and I took our children to North Carolina, which now officially bills itself as the “most military friendly state.” I was listening to some war propaganda on talk radio and the host, who seemed open-minded, took my call. I merely brought up the fact that many of our civil rights had been taken away after the supposed terrorist attack of September 11 and that I am glad that my homeschooled children will not have war marketed to them in government schools. The host appreciated my call, but a later caller did not, admonishing me for keeping my children away from military recruiters. Treating me as if I were a spoiled little girl, the caller felt that I had been “misled” and wondered if I knew that this war and our soldiers were the reason that I “had the freedom to make that very phone call.”

photo by John Thomas

It’s a connection I don’t quite understand — how the freedoms that are quickly leaving the United States are somehow protected by soldiers who are fighting in other countries. If the soldiers were truly fighting for our freedoms, wouldn’t they be stationed at the White House, reading the U. S. Constitution to the Bush administration, the Supreme Court, and Congress?

Nonetheless, Hannah’s son will continue to wonder: Where is my mommy? Except that now, he won’t even hear her voice on the phone.

Tricia Shore [send her mail], Comic Mom, is a North Carolina State University graduate who is happy with her momly life. Her new book, The Breastfeeding Diaries, a collection of funny breastfeeding stories from women across the United States, is due out in May 2007. Currently residing in Los Angeles, Tricia misses the sweet tea, grits, and barbeque of the South. You can read more of her thoughts and comment on her article here.

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