In 1942, at the beginning of World War II, the Sullivan family of Waterloo, Iowa, lost all five of its sons when the ship on which they were serving in the Pacific was torpedoed. While the Sullivan boys became national heroes _ receiving numerous awards posthumously, including the naming of a destroyer after them _ Congress wisely passed a law preventing siblings from serving together on the same ship.
That generally became the practice on the ground as well as at sea, with commanders striving to protect mothers and fathers from the devastating loss of multiple sons or daughters in combat. That effort, of course, was the subject of Steven Spielberg’s brilliant but emotionally wrenching film, “Saving Private Ryan,” about the hunt to locate and extract from danger after Normandy the remaining son whose older siblings were killed.
Perhaps there is no more moving or bitterly poignant scene in the history of the cinema than the sight of the rural mother standing at her kitchen window watching two cars approach up the long road to her farmhouse. One is a military vehicle. She goes to the porch to greet them, and when her local pastor and two Army officers emerge, she realizes instantly what has happened. Her legs refuse to support her and she sits down heavily. Not a word is spoken and the camera leaves her to unbearable grief, realizing nothing further was necessary to portray the drama of that moment.
One can only wonder why current military leaders would allow the possibility of the same tragedy occurring. Yet not only are four sons of Tammy Pruett of Pocatello, Idaho, serving in Iraq, another son and her husband have just returned. President Bush singled out Mrs. Pruett the other day while stumping in defense of his Iraq policy in the face of falling ratings over his handling of the situation. Certainly, Mrs. Pruett is a courageous woman who deserves the recognition. But why would the president of the United States use this mother’s incredible contribution shamelessly to promote his own interests?
The potential for disaster in this instance is overwhelming. Rather than cite Tammy Pruett as an example to offset the equally as politically motivated anti-war movement led by Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan, it would have been far better for the president to have taken the opportunity to announce that he was ordering at least some of her sons out of the war zone even if they are a part of the same National Guard unit. Although the odds against such a horrific occurrence as what the Sullivans suffered are much better in this war than they were then, it’s still a high-risk bet not worth taking.
Cindy Sheehan was a far more sympathetic figure when she was a lone, grief-stricken mother standing along the roadside near the president’s Crawford, Texas, ranch, vowing not to leave until he talked to her. But it took only a few moments for the whole affair to become politicized, with Bush’s opponents providing money and public-relations expertise that has brought thousands to her side and generated a national movement. The obvious flaw in her argument _ which her husband, who reportedly disagrees with her, understands _ is that, unlike with Vietnam, their son and others who lost their lives in the Middle East were not draftees. They are volunteers who, of their own volition, as one father conceded, “signed on the dotted line,” and who must have realized that their chosen occupation or avocation ultimately could land them in harm’s way.
That is true not only of regular career military units but also the National Guard and Reserves, where signing up for a little extra money for weekends and a two-week summer experience can ultimately become a burden many would not like to carry. One need only review the historic contribution of these mainly civilian groups during four wars in the 20th century to be forewarned.
Those who oppose Iraq policy should argue that it is wrong for the long-term interests of the nation if they believe it is. Neither side, however, should attempt to exploit the battlefield casualties. The first line of defense for mothers and fathers who don’t want the daily anguish of worrying about a son or daughter in combat is to convince them not to join the military. If the parents fail, they should prepare themselves for a potential loss as painful as one can sustain.
In the meantime, there is absolutely no need for Tammy Pruett to face the possibility, as remote as it may be, of losing four sons at once. Bring them home, Mr. President.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)