EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- It's hard to carry the weight when you keep feeling like you're disappearing.
"I've got two kids, a girl, 5, and a son, 2, back in New Jersey with my husband," said Staff Sgt. Connie Gumulauskis-Hall.
She carried an M-16. She was in a corrugated metal shed by an airfield, a PX, sort of a ghost shopping mall surrounded by barbed wire and bomb-sniffing dogs. She is in intelligence and she was standing in front of a display rack trying to make up her mind which greeting card to send to her daughter.
"When I left, she said, 'Why not Daddy? Why doesn't he go to fight the war instead of you?' I don't know where she gets it. I think it's peer pressure. They learn it from the other kids in school."
Her husband, a civilian, is watching the kids. "He's a dependent. He cooks, he cleans," she said.
It was a joke, but it wasn't about him, it was about the last 20 years of wrangling over what men and women are and aren't -- wrangling that began, maybe only coincidentally, at the end of our last good-sized war. That was Vietnam, a war in which there were no women like Gumulauskis-Hall and a war that the men lost, when all was said and done.
Now she is here and her husband is home. This time around about 10 percent of our forces are women.
You'd think that 20 years of feminist indoctrination would have persuaded the 5-year-olds, at least.She tries to explain it but it's hard, standing in line for hours to get to a telephone where you have to pretend to be you in this desert of military anonymity, this country where the native women wear full black veils so the men stare not at your body but at your naked face -- the same sort of stare -- and it makes you feel like nobody. You can buy a souvenir here, an English-language version of a Saudi sign showing a woman with an X drawn over her, and the words: "No women -- women cannot be seated or served here."
It's hard to explain to a 5-year-old.
"I called and I talked to her, but something was wrong, I think the connection was bad. She didn't realize it was me talking to her," Gumulauskis-Hall said.
She studied the greeting cards. She had her choice down to two categories with a small but crucial difference between them: "When They Need You" and "They Need You." She thought about it for a while and then walked away without buying either one.
The men in the Persian Gulf are more used to this vanishing act than the women -- it's part of male tradition, the sort of thing that Baghdad Betty, the radio propagandist, works on by broadcasting stuff like: "Listen to this, American men! While you are lost in the desert, your wives are sleeping with famous movie stars!"
The other apocryphal story you hear is about a new twist on the old literary form known as the Dear John letter. You hear that some guy in the unit three clicks up the road got a videotape in the mail from his family.
The first part shows his children standing in front of the Christmas tree and saying, "Hi, Daddy, we hope you come home soon." Then it cuts to his wife. It pulls back to show her making love to another man. The wife looks at the camera and says, "This is my way of telling you that this marriage is over." This story has everything you need: video, Christmas, children for an army in which a huge number of the troops are married. Best of all, it has the ironies that soldiers like to work away at like a tongue working at a sore tooth.
And it passes for titillation in a theater of operations where there are no camp followers, alcohol, drugs, brothels or "pornographies," where the local women hide even their faces and Saudi pin-up art shows merely the eyes of a veiled and shrouded woman.
If this army wins a great victory, and its veterans become our moral exemplars like the veterans of World War II, they could end an age in which we take it as gospel that sex is not only an undeniable need but a right, an age in which imprisoned felons sue for conjugal visits as their constitutional entitlement. This is an army that throws away the gospel of Freud, Havelock Ellis, Hugh Hefner, Donahue and Dr. Ruth and instead looks back to good old American puritanism, and forward to the stern egalitarianism of modern feminism.
How strange that chastity, virtue, even celibacy comes at a moment when men and women serve as equals on combat teams, even husbands and wives.
"Holding hands, kissing, none of it," said Sgt. John Erb, who is part of the same Marine communications unit as his wife, Cpl. Michelle Erb. "We'd get office hours," he said, referring to disciplinary proceedings just under the court-martial level.
"You're never alone. There's always somebody else around, 24 hours a day. You can't do that kind of thing on duty status, and we're always on duty status."
"You might get a minute here, a minute there, but that's all it is," his wife said.
"It's more like being in high school," he said.
If the great sex manual of the 1950s was "Love Without Fear," the manual of this standoff in the gulf is "Fear Without Love."
In earlier wars women were usually scarce, but all the icons of femininity traveled with the troops. Now, because the Saudis forbid the possession of "pornographies," as they say, and because pornographies include things like the swimsuit ads that American schoolchildren have been erasing with Magic Markers so that magazines can be sent to our defenders of freedom, you rarely see pin-ups that approach even the erotic value of Betty Grable peeking over her shoulder half a century ago in World War II.
Safe inside the inside of a tank, next to the toilet paper and the fly swatter, you might see a Guess Parfum ad torn from a magazine, some pictures sent by female pen pals writing to "Any Soldier" or "Any Marine." In the all-male units out in the desert, there are shy, wry euphemisms for sexual solitude: "nocturnal air bursts" or "clown punching."
As far as the theorists of both gender-free utopias and high-tech war are concerned, the grunts out in the field disappeared years ago. But as the grunts know, after all of the air strikes and high-tech, it will be they who will go in to make sure the enemies are dead, which they will have to do by killing them.
They will do this by picking up huge amounts of weight, strapping it to their backs, mile after mile, more than a hundred pounds for a mortar baseplate man or an A-gunner on a Dragon antitank team. Think of it as putting on boots, helmet, rifle, ammunition, pack, canteens, chemical-warfare kit, bayonet and grenades, and then strapping, say, the equivalent of two cases of beer and a 10-speed bicycle to your back and walking 20 miles in soft sand, carrying, say, the weight of a small-to-medium-size woman. This is what war is about, finally, and at some level it is what sex is about too.
"Actually, we sell a lot of condoms for guys to put over the muzzles of their rifles to keep the dust out," said Marine Master Sgt. Herbert Moffitt, who runs a post exchange out of a tent by a harbor. "You can shoot right through them."
This may be nothing but lore, a sort of bragging about coarse truths transcending middle-class niceties in the realities of battle. What you are far more apt to see on the muzzles of M-16s are black plastic muzzle caps. You can shoot through them as well.
The nurses seem to handle it best -- they're officers, for one thing, and they've been part of the military for so long they've learned to keep war and sex from getting confused.
"It's not hard here being a woman," said Navy Lt. Sheila Weibert with a flash of the military nurse look, a bit of psychic triage that suggests she has just made some irrevocable decision about you, a look that makes you feel understood and ignored at the same time, reassuring but not encouraging.
Women with husbands and children seem to have a harder time.
Down near an airfield, Army Sgt. Christina Wall, an ammunition specialist, waited for her husband, a petroleum specialist, to fly in.
"We'll get 10 or 15 minutes together," she said, and then she'll go back to her tent. "We have a husband-and-wife team in our unit but they spend no time together. The other people would think it's unfair. The majority of men think that just because it's your wife, that doesn't mean that you get to have something they don't.
"When we got here, it was difficult between the men and the women. We've got guys raised to protect a female, and they treat us like we can't do our job. Then they approach you, but the female always controls that situation -- she has to. If she goes off with a guy it makes all the women look bad. We always travel in pairs. There are some times I'll go to bed, I'll think maybe somebody will get me and take me off.
"It puts you to the test. I've got two kids living with neighbors back in Kansas now that my husband is coming over. Son, 6, and a daughter, 3. My son thinks Daddy is coming over here to get me and protect me. I just let him think it so he'll feel better."
The problem, the women said, is that it's not anything a man might say or do, but a look, a tone of voice, a way they might have, say, of getting all earnest for no apparent reason, they might be talking about preventive maintenance on the M-60 tank but they sound as if they're confiding in you, making you feel that only you can make them feel like they exist out here, all the old jive, one line or another.
A Marine admin clerk named Cpl. Heather Robinson said: "The men are getting used to us. They'll give you that look, you know, but you stop it right there, a thing you do with your face, you give them your look."
In the new model Army, the idea is to become invisible, psychic camouflage, the countermeasures of sexual radar, watch out for the Dear John video, and all pornographies to stay inside the tank, please.