Quindlen: The Warrior Returns

Motherhood is defined by life and love; war is shadowed by death and loss. Mothers take care; soldiers face danger. The two seem antithetical, as Frances Richey knows well. Fran is a yoga teacher who writes poetry and is opposed to the war in Iraq. Her son, Ben, is a West Point graduate and Green Beret who served two tours there.

The bridge across the chasm that grew between them is made of words, a heart-rending collection of Fran's poetry titled "The Warrior." On its cover is a very old photo of her only child, a flaxen-haired toddler in a striped shirt who appears to be waving goodbye. The picture is testimony to the fact that no mother ever sends an adult into battle. She sends her baby. If she is lucky, her baby comes back home.

Ben convinced his mother that he needed to serve his country, even if it was in a way that was not easy for her to understand. But she was unconvinced about this war. "This is a terrible administration," she says on the phone, "but most of the soldiers are really noble people and they're being wasted and that's wrong. But I stopped arguing with Ben about it after he came back the first time because he was in so much pain. Politics was not important. Healing the relationship was the important thing. I think he understood it better by reading the poems because poetry communicates in a different way."

For Fran the poems were not political, except to the extent that all politics is personal. Sometimes everyone forgets that war is not a shout but a whisper: a folded flag, an empty bedroom, a woman who has lost that part of her life that made her feel most alive. "To that mother, the surge is not going well," says Fran Richey.

PBS marked the beginning of the sixth year in Iraq with a documentary called "Bush's War." It recounted the welter of petty fiefdoms, egocentric agendas and failures of understanding that led a small group of middle-aged men to send a large group of young men and women into this debacle. "Headquarters heroes," one former CIA man called them derisively, antsy to target Iraq while the World Trade Center was still smoking.

There is only one reason to go to war, and the architects of this one have never come close to satisfying it. It is that you have a cause so great that it justifies asking people to sacrifice their children.

Fran and Ben are on a book tour together, stopping at Fort Bragg and West Point. The child in the striped shirt, age 33, leaves the Army in July. "Before he was a warrior," his mother writes in one of her poems, "he was a boy."

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