The great debate over mothers at war is mirroring the debate that has occurred over the last 25 years in American society, namely should mothers work outside the home. It is a debate that a great many employed women believe was over 25 years ago, if not on the merits of the question, then on the necessity.

Real family income peaked in 1973 and it is employed mothers who have kept it from dropping in the years since then. Between 1979 and 1988, the median hourly wage for men dropped 5 percent, while the median hourly wage for women increased 5.8 percent. Much has been made of the wage gap between men and women, but the simple facts are that when an adjustment is made for inflation, men are earning less as each year goes by, and if America's mothers had not gone to work, their families' standard of living would have seriously eroded over the last two decades.

Those are not differences in pennies an hour we are talking about. An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found that from 1980 to 1989, hourly wages in the private sector fell by 9.3 percent. The value of fringe benefits -- pension and insurance programs -- fell by 13.8 percent. Meanwhile, payroll taxes rose by 4.6 percent. Workers who were the hardest hit were those in blue-collar occupations, those who were already at the bottom of the pay scale and those without college degrees. Those most likely, in other words, to look to the armed forces as a ticket to upward mobility.

Younger people were hardest hit. The weekly wage of a young male high school graduate in 1987 was 18 percent less than his 1979 counterpart. The 1987 graduate's wages dropped $53.67, to $244.94 a week. Young women graduates saw their weekly average wage drop from $206.60 in 1979 to $199.36 in 1987. Not much to raise a family on.

This is the economic backdrop against which American women left their homes and entered the work force and against which the United States launched an all-volunteer military, which is now about 10 percent female. While it may be entertaining in some circles to debate whether mothers should work for pay or not, for the majority of them it is a matter of feeding, clothing and sheltering their families. Never mind such luxuries as medical care, which are out of reach for 36 million Americans, but which the military provides. Mothers are working in the home and outside the home to provide basics. Working mothers do not need any more guilt trips.

This is doubly true for those women in the armed forces -- and particularly so for those women stationed in the Persian Gulf. It is hard enough for service people to be separated from their families without aggravating their sense of loss and hardship with a great stateside debate about whether they are doing something wrong. We are not debating whether it is right or wrong for fathers with young children to volunteer for the war effort. They are volunteering, they are going into combat, and at least one has been killed.

Efforts are underway to prevent both parents from being sent into combat zones. Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) is urging the Pentagon to allow a single parent with custody to seek reassignment out of the war zone and to allow one parent of two-parent families to seek such reassignment. He estimates that this would affect 2,000 parents in the gulf. He focuses his argument on the plight of the children. "This is not a 'women's' or 'mother's' issue; it is a children's issue," he wrote in yesterday's Washington Post.

That, of course, pulls the old heartstrings like nothing else.

The fallacy of his argument is that it puts children before women on some imaginary hierarchical scale of what's important. And in so doing it makes the women seem less important.

"A lot of this is just to marginalize those who are there," says Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority. "It is to make them feel like there is something wrong with them. Instead of saying these women are brave, they are courageous, we're saying you left your children. Most of those young people who are there didn't have enough money to go to college. Now we are putting another guilt trip on them. Maybe this is the best she could do by her kid. But we act as if they made an immature or questionable decision. Maybe given all their range of opportunities this was the best they could do, and they did it."

That makes them pretty much the same as civilian mothers and civilian fathers. And, as with civilian mothers in the workplace, any debate over how these military mothers mediate the conflicting demands of work and family ought to framed in gratitude, not guilt. Smeal put it well: "They've got enough problems, and now we are putting another burden on them. Isn't the job now to ease their burden?"