When Mothers Go Away to War

It's now a fact: American women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces are assuming more combat roles than ever before. During the war in Iraq, they struck targets, took enemy fire and guarded prisoners.

They faced the same dangers as their male counterparts: capture, injury and death. How is this possible, since women soldiers still remain barred from front-line ground-combat roles?

Military experts say modern warfare has blurred the concept of a clear front line. Guerrilla-warfare tactics and long-distance missiles make the entire combat zone a front line.

The circumstances surrounding the death of Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa proves this new reality. When she was traveling with the 507th Maintenance Company, Iraqi forces ambushed her convoy. She became the first American woman killed in action in Iraq. Her death has prompted a national debate over women's role in the military.

Many of the questions being asked are the same as ever: Are women strong enough for combat? Will they weaken the cohesion of units? Will Americans be able to accept the sight of women coming home in body bags? These are valid questions. Nonetheless, Christian leaders should be asking a different set of questions: Is military life morally suitable for women? Is it morally right for women to engage in combat? What role, if any, should women play in the military?

It's imperative that Christian leaders confront this issue with serious theological discernment. The debate at hand demands moral clarity in order to ensure the dignity of women. From a theological viewpoint, this debate should begin with an anthropological reflection by asking: What does God's revelation tell us about the feminine personality? What is her natural God-given vocation according to grace and nature? The answer to these questions will tell us if the nature and demands of military life are compatible with the dignity of women.

The intrinsic dignity of women, like that of men, originates from the truth of being created in the image and likeness of God. Genesis 1:27 narrates, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” Consequently, men and women share the same dignity as human beings created in the image and likeness of God. The Second Vatican Council's pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, accentuates this basic equality of dignity between men and women:

“All men are endowed with a rational soul and are created in God's image; they have the same nature and origin and, being redeemed by Christ, they enjoy the same divine calling and destiny; there is here a basic equality between men and it must be given ever-greater recognition.”

Although men and women share the same dignity, they have different natural vocations in relation to creation. This means God ordained men and women with certain diverse natural ends or purposes proper to each. In this sense it is possible to speak about a natural feminine and masculine personality.

For instance, God gave women at the beginning of creation the natural vocation of wife and mother. Subsequently, women are spiritually and physically intended for this purpose. God's maternal gift to women links them particularly to the gift of life. For this reason, women can love their children and human life in general in a way the masculine personality cannot.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, the distinguished Christian philosopher and scholar better known as Edith Stein, describes well the characteristics of the feminine personality:

“Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning. Lifeless matter, the fact, can hold primary interest for her only insofar as it serves the living and personal, not ordinarily for its own sake. Relevant to this is another matter: Abstraction in every sense is alien to the feminine nature. The living and personal to which her care extends is a concrete whole and is protected and encouraged as a totality; this does not mean that one part is sacrificed to another, not the mind to the body or one spiritual faculty at the expense of the others.

“Her theoretical and her practical views correspond; her natural line of thought is not so much conceptual and analytical as it is directed intuitively and emotionally to the concrete. This natural endowment enables woman to guard and teach her own children. But this basic attitude is not intended just for them; she should behave in this way also to her husband and to all those in contact with her.”

Having said this, it's time to answer the key question of our debate: Is the military profession and its demands compatible with the Christian vision and dignity of women?

In my judgment, the answer is No, since the nature and demands of the military seem to contradict the feminine personality. The personal experience of many women in the military supports this view.

For example, women soldiers find it tremendously difficult to be away from their children when deployed on a mission. Sgt. Raja Valenzuela, an Arabic linguist for the Army in Iraq, said, “I always lived in fear that I would leave my son. I have to have my baby with me.” Friends of Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa mentioned that her deepest worry before going to war in Iraq was leaving her 4-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.

Now these children will never see their mother again.

When on long deployment, mothers in the military often lament missing important moments in their children's lives: birthdays, school plays and special holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. Now one might question: Don’t military men miss their children, too? Of course they do. Yet this experience is far more intense for women than men.

This helps account for the high attrition rate among women in the military. Take a look at the U.S. Army, which has more enlisted women than any other military branch. Before their first three years are up, approximately 47% of enlisted women leave the Army either by choice or order. The attrition rate for enlisted men during the same period is about 28%. The numbers in themselves demonstrate that women don’t exactly relish military life.

Besides this, contrary to the message of feminist advocates, most women in the military don’t want combat positions. Pentagon studies consistently found that only about 10% of enlisted women showed interest in combat positions. Operating tanks, shooting bazookas and other bellicose activities naturally disagree with the feminine personality that tends toward life and not destruction.

Nonetheless, the very purpose of the military is to wage war in defense of the country. This raises a compelling question: Why should young women be encouraged to seek a profession that thwarts their feminine personality? Wouldn’t this seem unwise, unhealthy and even morally questionable? This is what Christian leaders need to debate.

As for myself, I consider the idea of the woman warrior a deeply flawed one based on an erroneous feminist anthropology that denies the natural God-given complementary differences between men and women. Something is seriously wrong when a nation permits young women and even mothers to go to war. I hope reason enlightened by faith will defend the dignity of women in this ongoing debate.

Legionary of Christ Father Andrew McNair teaches at Mater Ecclesiae International Center of Formation for consecrated women in Greenville, Rhode Island.