Mothers of sons and Uncle Sam

Those of us who are concerned about the possibility of a reinstatement of the draft and increased military power in general need to stop, look, and listen to some new friends of Uncle Sam. Among them are many tired, frustrated, and overwhelmed mothers of sons.

Now the myth has it that, as Simone de Beauvoir puts its, ''Every mother entertains the idea that her child will be a hero,'' and the hero is a son, of course. ''A son will be a leader of men, a soldier . . . and his mother will share his immortal fame. . . .'' However, while conducting research on a larger project on the mother-son relationship from mothers' perspectives, I discovered that many mothers who encourage their sons to join the military have no such dreams.

The women with whom I spoke were not expecting their sons to be heroes, had no highfalutin objectives like defense of the country or patriotic duty. Rather, they spoke in terms of what social workers call ''reality problems,'' the day-to-day struggles of trying to keep a family together and survive. Their concerns were often expressed in such mundane harsh phrases as ''getting him off my back,'' ''needing some discipline,'' ''I've got others to care for,'' ''no money for college,'' and ''no jobs around here.'' And it wasn't only working-class women who were turning to the military as a means of shifting the responsibility of their sons' welfare from themselves alone. Middle- and upper-class women did too, looking to the ROTC way usually but still the military.

Let me assure you, my purpose is not to castigate these mothers of sons. They are not the vulture-like ''Moms'' Philip Wylie derisively described several decades ago. No, these are our own mothers, or friends, or ourselves who are lulled into viewing the military as a benevolent institution to take care of the sons in a society that can't seem to offer anything else, not even a job, much less an affordable education, a sense of community and camaraderie, and discipline too.

As a mother of three sons, two of whom are draft age, I know what these women are feeling. I understand why they can be lulled into forgetting the purpose of the military - to prepare for and wage war. There is often no place else for our sons to go.

The military as a benevolent institution to guide our boys through the transition to manhood and economic security is what a popular film among college students, ''An Officer and a Gentleman,'' is all about. When Mayo, the officer candidate at the Naval Aviation School, breaks down for the sergeant and says, ''I got nowhere else to go, I got nothing else,'' many young men identify with him, and so do their mothers. The message of the film is that the military will get it all together for our young men (and, with considerably less conviction, our young women), and what mother doesn't want that for her son?

Our military recruiters know they have friends among mothers. In their literature there is scarcely a mention of the business of conducting war. Rather , we are told our sons will receive good pay, skills training, college credits, travel opportunities, a sense of responsibility, maturity, and a clearer idea of what they want in life. One pamphlet, specifically addressed to parents, assures us that the relationship between our sons and their officers ''should partake of the nature of the relation between father and son.'' It closes with quotes from letters of grateful parents.

No, we cannot castigate the mothers who urge their sons to sign up because they want these things for their sons and do not, could not possibly, have the resources to provide them themselves. We cannot blame them for closing their ears to the stories of other mothers whose sons are dead, or maimed and mutilated, or have learned to kill too well.

At present a strong militia appears to be easier than attempting to go through the painful process of reconstructing our social and economic system for peace. But it hasn't worked in the past and it certainly won't in the future. A strong military institution, whether procurement is by draft, universal military training, or ''voluntary'' moral, educational, and economic enticement, is not the place. Mothers of sons must be listened to . There's got to be somewhere else for all of us to turn.

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