Right or wrong, we must let mothers go to war

By Minnete Marrin (THE TIMES, 22/06/08):

Everyone in the country must have been touched and saddened last week after Corporal Sarah Bryant’s death on duty in Afghanistan by photographs all over the media of her wedding day three years ago. She looked luminously young and pretty, in a fairy story wedding dress, with her handsome soldier husband beside her and her life ahead of her.

The death of any soldier is a terrible loss; all the massed photographs of the young men and women who have died have been painful to look at, as has the news footage of coffins coming home and families struggling with their grief at funerals all over the country.

In one sense the loss of Bryant is a loss like all the others – different in countless private and personal ways to those close to her, no doubt, but the same in its heroism and self-sacrifice and in the sorrow it causes.

Yet somehow it did seem rather different to me and I suspect that the same vague sense of a difference might be what underlies the massive coverage that has been given to her death in particular, although three young men died with her.

It is not just that she is the first woman soldier to be killed in Afghanistan, or that it is relatively rare for women in the armed forces to be killed, or even that she was a delightful, and delightfully photogenic, young woman. Nor was it, in my case at least, anything to do with the assumption of less liberated times that a woman could not be a soldier on active duty in the line of fire.

A woman should be free to do any job she chooses and I have no doubt that women can be good pilots, diplomats, plumbers and prime ministers as well as excellent soldiers of undoubted skill and courage.

There may be plenty of innate differences between men and women, generally speaking, and I believe there are. However, generalisations do not apply to the particular and any one woman should be free to do whatever she is capable of. Ignorant prejudice should not be allowed to stand in her way.

What troubled me, looking at the archetypal bride in her white dress, was thoughts not about women but about young children. Bryant didn’t have children and I have no idea what her plans were, and in the midst of her family’s bereavement it would be heartless and wrong to speculate. However, in general terms I do wonder whether it is right for a woman who has young children to choose to risk her life on active duty in the armed forces.

Just as women vary greatly, so do mothers and so do children and so, too, do their various situations and it is hard for an outsider to appreciate all the different factors that go into parents’ decisions. Even so, I believe that generally speaking children need their mothers and need them more than they need their fathers; the loss of a father is bad for a child, as I know from my own experience, but the loss of a mother is a disaster.

Arguments still rage about the bonds between mother and child and how important a mother is to a child’s sense of security and identity and how far other people can be substitutes for mothers, but there cannot be many theorists left who would argue that a mother is not usually centrally important to a child’s wellbeing.

When that mother is not just busy working, or absent, but dead – and dead because she knowingly took a serious risk of being killed in the line of duty – surely there must be an obvious question hanging in the air: why did the mother not think that her first duty of care was to her child? One day her child may ask that question too.

The obvious counter-argument is that we all take risks all the time. Crossing the road can be risky. Air travel is risky. Some sports such as skiing or riding are surprisingly risky. Women can hardly be expected to give up all these things when they become mothers. Going into a war zone may not necessarily be riskier than some of these other activities.

However, there is a clear difference between choosing to take an unusual and obvious risk, such as serving in a shooting war, and – on the other hand – spending a week on the gentler runs of a ski resort. And I do feel that women themselves often become more cautious and more self-protective in ordinary life when they have children; I know several who say that they lost their nerve, so to speak, at that point and began to drive or ski or ride much more defensively.

Then there is the usual slippery slope argument. If mothers, according to this view, ought not to put themselves in harm’s way in the armed forces, it would soon be said that there are a lot of other things they shouldn’t do; perhaps they should give up the idea of being a police officer, a racing driver or a foreign correspondent in war zones. Perhaps mothers should not pursue careers as performers, spending long months on tour or abroad. And there would be more restrictions further down the slope.

The only answer to that is that we are already on a slippery slope in all respects; a slippery slope is the locus of life. There are no safe and certain principles to protect us from slipping much further than we anticipated. The question is always one of degree.

It is also one of freedom. Each person ought to be free, in a good society, to choose their own degree of risk in the context of their own family and their own way of life. And although I personally feel that it cannot always be right – must sometimes be wrong – for a young mother to be a serving soldier, I do not for a moment believe that it is the business of the government, or of the army or anybody else in authority to stop her.

If she is to sacrifice her ambitions in the army or the navy, for the sake of her young children, it must be by her own choice, just as it was Bryant’s choice to risk sacrificing her life for her country.

It is good that women have so many more real choices than they did even a generation ago; nobody should have the power to take them away from us, even when the cost of choice is high and so often measured in sacrifice.