It was 2003 and I was on a bus riding through the streets of DaNang. The tour guide pointed to a towering statue of a peasant woman. She had an apron, a knapsack of some sort and a pained look on her face.
“Hero Mother,” he said.
Then he explained that was the term given to women who lost husbands, sons, brothers during the American War in Vietnam.
It was an odd moment for me, hearing the story of widows in Vietnam. I’d always pretty much considered war widows as American women, like my mother. I’d never really thought about what it must be like to be a widow on the other end of the story.
Those women didn’t receive any government aid after we pulled out of Vietnam. They weren’t allowed to hang photos of their dead husbands because they were considered to be traitors to Uncle Ho. They were relegated to being beggars or prostitutes or simply dependent upon the generosity of other family members. Many never buried their husbands. Bodies were piled in heaps alongside the roads, later to be buried in mass graves, or burned, but not returned to families. If they were fortunate enough to be buried, their graves were later destroyed once American troops withdrew.
In other words, their lives were miserable.
I thought of that reckoning in DaNang when I read the story in the NYTimes this week about the Iraq war widows.
We know we have thousands of Gold Star families from this war. Our military organizations have worked relentlessly to take care of these families. When the war first started, the widows were paid $250,000 in life insurance. Now they get half a million. That doesn’t negate their loss at all but it does ensure that they can, if wise in their choices, provide for their families without having to rely on others or to turn to the streets for help. Our nation has done a much better job of caring for Gold Star families than they did during my mother’s era.
There are scholarships for kids. There is health care. There are even free trips to Disneyland. That doesn’t make the loss any easier to bear but it does mean that young mothers have the option of staying home to care for their children, or getting reeducated, or relocated. There is always more that we can do for these families but there is plenty of help in place.
That is not the case in Iraq where there are an estimated 750,000 war widows. Nearly a million war widows. Wrap your mind around that would you? And only about 120,000 of them are receiving any government aid of any kind. The others are begging. Or living with family. Or worse.
The government is trying to set up some sort of program whereby they pay men to marry these women. That’s their custom, to marry off the widows.
The women, of course, get no say so in the matter.
There are no survivor benefits, no grief counselors, no trips to Disneyland, no somber military honors, no statues of recognition, nothing but a future to be decided by somebody else.
Likely a man who is paid to decide it for them.
This is the freedom our war in Iraq has brought to nearly a million women?
I can’t even begin to count the number of children left fatherless and the buckets of tears they’ve wept.
Nobody talks about it.
In fact, many good people will just think that’s their problem, not ours.
Even though it was our policy and our weapons that created their problems.
There are plenty of families who live happily under terrible dictators. Just as their are plenty of families who live happily under corrupt governments.
But we managed to rob the Vietnamese of that happiness and now we’ve done it to the Iraqis as well.
Don’t preach to me about all the good we’ve done by bringing freedom to Iraq when we’ve put nearly a million women and their children into a bondage from which they will never escape.
God. It makes me sick.