An acute crisis over "collateral damage," the Pentagon's dismissive euphemism for civilian casualties, arose with the bombing of a Baghdad building that a number of Iraqis were using as a shelter, although we insist it was a command and control center. We know, because of our infallible intelligence.

Whatever it is, it produced horrific pictures, the first of a near-perfect war, of women and children incinerated and suffocated.

The United States rallied, mobilized its word-warriors, deployed generals, admirals, spokesmen, all of whom shifted the blame to Saddam Hussein ("a man without a shred of human decency," said State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler) for enticing civilians into a legitimate military target. The massive propaganda counter-assault could work. This country, after all, survived the Christmas bombing of Hanoi and a direct hit on BachMai Hospital, which a Pentagon spokesman called "an alleged hospital." The public does not like pictures and accounts of the destruction of innocents, but as long as the victims are not us, and they are told it is unavoidable, they can keep a stiff upper lip.

A potential argument over the bombing of Baghdad, or indeed the larger purposes and strategy of the war, has just about been nipped in the bud.

But there is another kind of "collateral damage" being suffered that will not be so easily managed. These, too, are civilians, but they are our civilians and their wounds cannot be treated immediately in a hospital.

They are the children left behind when the Pentagon, inexplicably, sends both their parents to war.

The military obviously thinks it is doing a wonderful thing. It has capitulated completely to the feminists, to the theory that men and women should be treated with absolute equality. Overlooking the fact that only women become pregnant and nurse babies requires a great leap of the imagination, but once the Pentagon gets an idea in its head, it is hard to stop it.

There has been no outcry over this horrendous situation, about the orphaning of small children, who are plunged into grief and pain, wondering as children will, why they have been abandoned and, as they see it, rejected.

It will be hard for parents in future years to explain what this war was all about, particularly if their children learn in school that a nation does not go to war unless its national security is involved. Maybe the parents can persuade their accusing children that there was no other way to deal with a two-bit dictator a world away but to wreck lives.

We pride ourselves on being a "family-oriented" society. In almost 10 years of conservative Republican rule, we have heard ad nauseam about our devotion to the family -- despite the divorce rate, despite the number of children lost in the foster-care system, stuffed into garbage cans, walked out on by crack mothers, or parents in prison. We insist we care. The Pentagon, by adding to the population of wretched little souls, has formalized indefensible indifference towards children.

In the old days, a woman soldier was shown the door when she became pregnant. Now she has a choice: She can resign from active service. Exasperated people ask why a woman who intends to have children would go into the military in the first place? Money may be the answer. Then they ask why she didn't resign when she got pregnant. Hope of military advancement, perhaps. Armies run on the theory of sending soldiers anywhere at any time.

The larger answer was probably that no one was expecting a war. Why would anyone think that the advocate of "the new world order" would do something so unoriginal as start a war? By the time many parents found out, it was too late, and infants and toddlers were bundled up and sent to relatives -- and, even with the kindest care-takers, subject to bewilderment and deprivation.

Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is one of several legislators trying to remedy all this. She has a bill, appropriately called "the military orphans prevention bill," which would excuse single parents, or one of a couple from service at the front. She has run into opposition from the secretary of defense, Richard B. Cheney. She has confronted him with an unanswerable bit of his past history. He spent the entire Vietnam War in school. He sought one exemption from the draft by claiming imminent fatherhood. It was granted. Boxer thinks he owes today's volunteers the consideration he got when he had something better to do than go to war -- "other priorities," he said.

It's too late to do anything about the poor, burned babies of Baghdad. But we can still rescue our own young children from trauma that could last their whole lives -- and ours, too.