The images are stark and disturbing: Staff Sgt. Rikki Hurston nursing her baby while her 8-year-old daughter holds tightly to her mother’s travel bag, fear and incomprehension in her eyes; the women in Army camps in Kuwait who wear pictures of their babies pinned to their combat helmets; and prisoner-of-war Shoshana Johnson, mother of a 2-year-old, answering her Iraqi interrogators.

One should not question the courage and patriotism of these women: they exhibit both. Nor should we doubt here their ability to do their jobs. But we should ask one critical question: Why does the United States send the mothers of infants and toddlers off to fight a foreign war?

Make no mistake: We are the exception here. In the whole sweep of human history, no other nation – not Soviet Russia, nor the Iraqi Baathists, nor the egalitarian Scandinavians – has intentionally placed young mothers in harm’s way such as American military planners have done in Iraq.

The strong and normal human instinct is to protect infants, toddlers and their mothers. Indeed, their well-being and security form the central purposes of every healthy nation. From the smallest tribe to the greatest empire, the human rule has been that all others must sacrifice, and even die, to protect the mothers of the young, for they are a people’s future.

“Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and protection,” declares Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The third annual Mothers Index (2002) – prepared by the Save the Children organization – affirms that “the care and protection of women and children must be the humanitarian priority in ethnic and political conflicts.” Even in modern Sweden, where gender egalitarianism is political gospel, the nation’s system of universal military training is restricted to men.

How did America get so out of sync with human nature and the lessons of human history? The problem began in the early 1970s. With the draft being phased out and with the Pentagon unwilling to mobilize the National Guard and Reserves for service in the faltering Vietnam campaign, a “manpower crunch” loomed. Meanwhile, the long moribund feminist movement also sprang back to life, and Congress approved the Equal Rights Amendment. Pundits (who had yet to meet Phyllis Schlafly) predicted its quick ratification by the states. In anticipation, Pentagon planners elevated women into a valuable recruiting pool.

During the Carter years, feminists came to dominate the powerful Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, pushing for combat roles for women. Congress gender-integrated the service academies at West Point, Annapolis and Colorado Springs. By 1980, the U.S. had 171,400 women on active military duty, the largest figure – both in absolute and relative terms – in the world. Most were there simply for a good job and benefits. During the 1990s, though, the Clinton administration eliminated key rules that had protected women from proximity to combat. “Inherent risk of capture” would no longer restrain feminist goals of “equal career opportunities.”

And so, today’s active duty military force contains about 200,000 women, or 15 percent of the total. They comprise a still higher share of the reserve force, many of whom have been called to active duty as well. Over half of these women are mothers – many of them single mothers. A fair share are now near – and some such as helicopter pilots even on – the combat front lines.

The costs of this great social experiment have yet to be counted. We can safely assume, though, that the children left behind will pay the largest price. Mothers play unique, irreplaceable roles for newborns and toddlers. Social science research shows that young children effectively abandoned by their mothers for lengthy periods are much more likely to suffer emotional and mental disorders, more likely in later life to be in trouble with the law and abuse drugs, and less likely to succeed in school than children with their mothers available. Grandparents, day-care centers and even fathers are second-best substitutes.

Can this backward step in civilized behavior be undone? Some hope not. The New York Times perversely welcomed the capture of Shoshana Johnson as a victory for women’s rights. But there are better options. Some news reports hint that American small-unit commanders in Iraq, responding to deep human instincts, are already giving special – if informal – protection to the women under their command. The Washington Post recommends another kind of preferential treatment: “giving, say, mothers of children under 2 a real option of deferring [mobilization] if they had no comfortable child-care available.”

Real reform will have to wait until war’s end. When that occurs, President Bush should appoint a special presidential commission on mothers in the military service. It should analyze the historical and anthropological records regarding the treatment of motherhood in times of war. This commission should study the effects of mother-absence on small children, calculating the real social costs. It should examine the military benefit system, to see if it creates incentives to out-of-wedlock births. The commission also needs to honestly measure the effects of pregnancy and maternity on military deployment and unit effectiveness. And it should recommend how America can protect the basic human rights of mothers and children … from foreign enemies and domestic ideologues alike.

Allan Carlson is a distinguished fellow in family policy studies at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., and president of the Howard Center in Rockford, Ill.

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