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May 11, 2002

Happy Mother's Day...But Quiet, We're at War Now


by Murray Polner

Happy Mother's Day! Today Mom becomes "Queen for a Day," like the name of that old TV show. Newspaper and TV ad sales will soar and florists and department stores will be bless whoever dreamed up the holiday. To them, the Day means Sales! To the rest of us it stands for nothing more than loving and honoring Mom.

Yet there is another way of looking at Mother's Day, the celebration of which in the United States was fashioned in large part by a truly great American heroine, Julia Ward Howe, now long – forgotten as the nineteenth century suffragette and abolitionist and author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (for which the Atlantic Monthly reportedly paid her $4) that she was. She was a mother too.

Born in New York City, descended from colonial administrators, at 24 she married Samuel G. Howe, a Boston opponent of slavery, who became her lifelong partner and fellow reformer. Having lived through the Civil War, she was especially haunted by the Franco – Prussian War, as stunned by its barbarism as she was by her belief that the war was entirely unnecessary.

It led her to ask a question that's as relevant and vital today as it was then: "Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the cost?" Deeply respectful of the "august dignity of motherhood and its terrible responsibilities" and that their sons and husbands – and in today's even more savage wars, themselves and their daughters as well – bear the pain while too often foreign policy "elites" and nations' warhawks and their children go untouched while regularly preaching the virtue and necessity of war, she helped initiate Mother's Day, which, she insisted, "should be devoted to the advocacy of peace doctrines."

This Mother's Day peace (and justice) seems further away than ever before. The "war on terrorism" and predictions of an American invasion of Iraq early next year, and who knows where else after that, seems to leave too many American mothers unmoved and mute, though millions of them with male teenagers ought to be trembling before the possibility that their sons may one day be compelled to join in yet another war.

Julia Ward Howe would understand their silence for she too experienced the identical indifference towards matters of war and peace. In her memoir, "Reminiscences: 1819 – 1899," she reluctantly recognized that even women suffragettes were loathe to offer her a platform. Votes for women – and these days the multiple distractions of ordinary life – it seems, were infinitely more important than, as she wrote, "in my scheme of a world – wide protest of women against the cruelties of war."

So, Happy Mother's Day to all. I intend to tell the moms in my extended family to think about their kids and organize "Mothers Against War" groups. Though hardly optimistic it will happen, I have never forgotten the lamentation of a wounded British lieutenant after World War I:

"You want to know what was the most awful thing? To find out that the women can smile and throw roses, that they can give up their men, their children, the boys they have put to bed a thousand times and pulled the covers over a thousand times, and they gave us up – that they sent us – sent us! The women sent us. No general could have made us go if the women hadn't allowed us to be stacked on the trains, if they had screamed out that they would never look at us again if we turned into murderers."
[Quote by the wounded lieutenant from "Men and War" by Andreas Latzko (Boni & Liveright)]

Happy Mother's Day.

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Murray Polner is the author of No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and most recently co-authored Disarmed and Dangerous, a biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan.

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