Sarah Sands: It is the mothers who feel the pity and waste of war

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Even before Iraq became a hydra-headed beast, Army recruitment was falling. Mothers had starting dragging their feet about the discomfort and the discipline.

In a mollycoddled, feminised society is it possible to produce warriors? Iraq and Afghanistan have at least redressed the hormonal balance. Seventeen- and 18-year-olds have faced sultifying heat, hardship, sleeplessness and extreme danger. Most of them have been keen to go. It is the old soldiers and mothers who feel the pity and the waste of war more strongly than the thrill of action.

I went to a passing out parade at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate last year and was struck by the parents' expressions. Fathers beamed with affirmation. The mothers looked far more uncertain. Their pride had a shadow of terror. Their sons would be on the front line before they were old enough to buy alcohol.

Tours of duty were by now long and incessant. As the mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq explained, catching her breath, during a recent television debate: "It is not just about God and country. It is about flesh and blood."

This is not to say that mothers are unpatriotic. It is just that if they are to sacrifice their sons or daughters for a cause then it had better be worthy of the angels because mothers will never recover from it.

Wives will battle on for the sake of children. Mothers inwardly die. These are the makers of quilts, shrines and memorials. The mother of a 19-year-old British soldier who was killed on sentry duty in Basra last year has created a garden in her son's memory. The plants are red, white and blue, symbolising the Union flag which was draped over the boy's coffin. His mother inscribed a plaque. "This garden is dedicated to Jamie Hancock. My son. My hero."

Families of soldiers will bear a great deal – prolonged absences, loneliness, stomach-twisting fear. The men in Iraq and Afghanistan are happy to describe the mortar attacks, the fire fights, the near misses, the bloodshed to passing journalists but falter when they send emails home to their wives and mothers.

"I have been keeping busy" is a euphemism for heart-pounding operations. An 18-year-old para out in Helmand province last year told me he had still not told his mother what went on. He thought it best. Men will fight, women will weep. But what is at stake now is the cause. When Tony Blair spoke about Iraq, political commentators measured the effect of it on his career, on Parliament, on the constitution, on relations with the United States. Military families measured it in lives.

Some of those women who have eclipsed men in their obsessive use of the internet are Army mothers searching for every daily detail of civil war in Iraq. A senior British officer told me last week that the Government had most to fear from these women."I wish the President could just explain to us what is the noble cause..." pleads a despairing mother of an American marine, on a military website.

There is no pretence of a cause in Basra now. The troops are sitting targets at Basra Palace, the one road out scattered with roadside bombs. There are daily mortar attacks from insurgents and daily jeers from the Americans about our impotence.

Before he died, Jamie Hancock "my son, my hero" wrote home. " I do not see why our lads have to die for something that will not make an iota of difference," he said. One more death, one more youth maimed because of Gordon Brown's dithering would be an obscenity. This is not about political reputations, this is flesh and blood.