Summer of 17: Women Fighting and Writing

A scene from Bullet Catchers, currently running in New York.

“All wars are boyish and fought by boys,” wrote Herman Melville a long time ago, but it’s hard not to notice all the women-authored and women-centric war-writing that has appeared in the summer of 2017. Much of the new work has taken the shape of memoir and journalism, but new fiction and theater also contribute to the feel that something different and exciting is happening. Some of the new work is by “First Wave” women war writers such as Siobhan Fallon and Helen Benedict–familiar names in the war-writing scene–but appearing also are many new writers–a “Second Wave”–describing subjects and representing perspectives previously unheard or overlooked. The new work is appearing in print or being performed on stage, but online venues seem to be the medium of choice for publication and discussion of this up-to-the-moment phenomenon. Much credit goes to a highly motivated-and-resourced new organization called The War Horse, of which a profile of founder Thomas Brennan can be found here. The War Horse in particular has taken upon itself to promote writing by women-veterans, and even more specifically a War Horse writing workshop that took place in New York City in April, led by David Chrisinger, though not limited to women, has been enormously generative of first-person narratives detailing aspects of life in uniform for women in all its variety and implication. Some examples include:

“Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD,” by Army veteran Jenny Pacanowski.

“Drown Proofing, Khaki Shorts. Some Things About Dive School Don’t Change,” by Coast Guard veteran Tenley Lozano.

“Circumstances, Fortunes, or Misfortunes, by USMC veteran Teresa Fazio.

The titles of Pacanowski’s and Lozano’s pieces preview their intriguing storylines; Fazio’s title doesn’t give her story away so readily, but the article describes the author’s post-service trip to India to find meaning in the Sikh tradition of Prasad. Fazio’s not the only female vet with a spiritual bent, either; another War Horse seminar participant (and my former central New Jersey neighbor), Army veteran Supriya Venkatesan, describes her own search for tranquility through Transcendental Meditation in an article titled “I Lived in a Town Where Everyone Meditated Together. Every Day.” Venkatesan already has a list of non-war-related publishing credits as long as your arm on exotic subjects such as bio-hacking, eco-sex, and home-birth, fyi for all aspiring vet-writers searching to break out of rigid identification as a mil-and-war writer. 

In the articles I’ve posted, Pacanowski, Lozano, Fazio, and Venkatesan don’t directly address military sexism and toxic military masculinity, but awareness of the difficulty of being a woman in uniform underwrites the ethos and worldview of their writing. Not coincidentally, The War Horse broke the story of the Marine Corps photo-sharing scandal early in 2017—Thomas Brennan’s post-Marine career began as an investigative journalist. Fellow ex-Marine Elliot Ackerman, the author of the novels Green on Blue and Dark at the Crossing, profiled Brennan this summer in a telling piece for Esquire titled “Inside the Nude Photo Scandal That Rocked the Marine Corps”—the despair of two proud Marines as they confront the easily-held misogyny of fellow male Marines is palpable. Appearing at almost the same time as Ackerman’s piece was Andria Williams’ story “The List,” a fictional dramatization of a photo-sharing scandal involving two Air Force officers, published on Afghan Post author Adrian Bonenberger’s The Wrath-Bearing Tree web journal. Williams, whose blog The Military Spouse Book Review has long tracked women’s war writing and military family issues, notes that she presciently first drafted her story in 2013, but filed it away thinking it too far-fetched. Little did she know…. the one-two punch of Ackerman’s article and Williams’ story reinforces the impression that the military’s ability to satisfactorily resolve its gender and sexual harassment/sexual abuse issues anytime soon and without outside help is slim, but if identifying the problem is the first step to a solution, then the authors have done their part.

The battle goes on on other fronts, too. On stage, a new play called Bullet Catchers, currently running in New York City, portrays life in an Army unit through the perspective of the women who occupy leadership positions, as well those who serve in the ranks. Bullet Catchers has already elicited at least two shrewd reviews from wise observers of the passing scene: Bullet Catchers: Women’s Modern Warfare” by Rachel Kambury posted on the New York City Veterans Alliance website and “A Plausible Reality by Teresa Fazio, written for Consequence magazine.

Finally (though I’m bound to be forgetting something significant), are the appearance of four books in 2017 by First Wave contemporary war-writing women authors. Already out are Elyse Fenton’s volume of verse Sweet Insurgent and Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages and soon to come are poet Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes and novelist Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season. And finally finally, just published is long-time editor of the Veterans Writing Project journal 0-Dark-Thirty editor Jerri Bell’s and Tracy Crow’s anthology It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to AfghanistanIt’s My Country Too’s historical perspective reminds us that the current perfect storm of First and Second Wave women’s war-writing didn’t appear brand new spun out of whole cloth. Not to push things back to 1776, as Bell and Crow do, but to a more-recent 2016, important precedents began appearing last year when anthologies such as Retire the Colors, edited by Dario DiBattista, and The Road Ahead, edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, offered robust mixtures of powerful stories by both men and women veterans.

So what to make of it all? The first step, it seems to me, is recognizing, respecting, and encouraging the development. The second step is assessing what women’s war-writing has to tell us, both about life-in-uniform for women and masculine traditions and conventions of war-writing. Third, preparing for the backlash, which will inevitably come in the form of sneers about “the feminization of war-writing” and efforts to reestablish its manly basis. Fourth, ever-more precisely disentangling current notions about military culture, war-winning, and fighting ability from their unproductive entwinement with accepted cultural ideas about manhood and patriarchy, so that the military becomes a better place for all Americans to serve, rather than being a big boy’s club, and applies itself more effectively to winning wars, rather than being an endless employment and get-rich opportunity for flag-wavers, war addicts, mercenaries, and profiteers.

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8 Comments on “Summer of 17: Women Fighting and Writing”

  1. Nunya Says:

    “Fourth, ever-more precisely disentangling current notions about military culture, war-winning, and fighting ability from their unproductive entwinement with accepted cultural ideas about manhood and patriarchy, so that the military becomes a better place for all Americans to serve”-Yes, because that is what a military is supposed to be for. It is not about winning battles and following the strategy given to it by it’s civilian leadership. It is for making a more “welcoming place”. Nonsense. Pure nonsense.

    If you have people write about pushing back against the 30% quota that the branches are forced to have for females then I will think you are actually concerned about making the military better.

    If you have people write about the fact that standards have been dropped or changed for females and that often enough females still meet different PFT/PRT standards than their male counterparts for the same job, then I will think you are actually concerned about making the military better.

    If you have people address the unplanned losses caused by pregnancy before or during a deployment, then I will think you are actually concerned about making the military better.

    If you have people address the high injury rates and ways for the force to manage those manning issues, then I will think you are actually concerned about making the military better.

    If you start pushing for higher standards, true equal treatment, an end to quotas and let the chips fall where they may, then I will think you are actually concerned about making the military better.

    If you start pushing for a real policy that is fair on manning issues caused by increased injuries and pregnancy before deployment and look at this as being about that and not feelings or being welcomed. Then I will think you are actually concerned about making the military better.

    Otherwise this is all PC, feel good silliness that has about as much realism and honesty as politician on election day.

    **In case you are wondering about anything to support this.**
    The OPAT is the “test” they are using for Army Infantry, you only have to deadlift 160lbs. Complete Joke.

    The branches all have separate and lower standards for female PRT/PFTs

    Goals of 30% were mandated by all branch Secs and the SecDef

    Women are more 2.6x more likely to be an unplanned loss than their male counterparts. When pregnancy was factored out it was still 2x more likely that a female would be an unplanned loss than their male counterparts and that is for the Navy, not talking about ground combat. (Center of Naval Analysis-Women at Sea”)

    • Peter Molin Says:

      Hi Nunya, you’ve identified issues, but what is needed are courageous and imaginative leadership and the full commitment of everyone involved to solve or mitigate problems, and I’m not getting a sense you have much interest in doing so. Anyone currently in uniform is duty-and-orders bound to being committed to figuring out how to allow women to serve equitably while still winning the nation’s wars, and even if someone hates the idea of women in uniform, there’s definitely no excuse for harassment, abuse, etc.

      • Nunya Says:

        Never said that there was an excuse for harassment, abuse, etc…that is building a straw man argument. Come now.

        I did say that I have yet to see anyone ask for the things I pointed out to be done, in the media or on any of these kind of websites that seem to push the idea that inclusion is more important that combat effectiveness.

        As for being duty bound, it is policy, it is unimportant what I think and I do not hate the idea of women in uniform, (another straw man), but I do hate lack honesty and fairness. I will do my best to train people if they come to the unit, but I can only do so much if standards are lowered, different, treatment is unequal and there are quotas. Fair is fair. So why not advocate for fairness?

        If you are going to print these kind of articles, you should at least try to be honest and objective and address those issues, but I am not getting a sense you have much interest in doing so.

  2. Peter Molin Says:

    Hi Nunya, my interest is in writing about the military and war, only incidentally policy and process, so if you think I’m going to go into a point-by-point discussion of the things you think are very important, that’s not going to happen. Still, I have a “Reply” section for reasons, one of which is to present alternate viewpoints. I do have some thoughts about how women might best be integrated into the infantry, in which I served, but I save them for whoever seems interested, which is basically nobody. The writers I’ve listed in this article, or at least some of them, report that things aren’t going so swimmingly in terms of making the military a great place to serve for women. Why shouldn’t it be? We’re in agreement that things are a mess, but we approach them from different angles. Fortunately, the young men and women soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines I observe when I visit my nearby base seem to be figuring out things and making it happen well enough on their own, without input from the overheated opinions of the blogosphere.

    • Nunya Says:

      Peter,
      You are essentially having “overheated opinions” by the writers on here and this is essentially a blog. You’re just doing it from one point of view, but you’re doing it none the less.
      As for things not going “swimmingly”, do you think it’s possible that due to the quotas, injury rate, lower and different standards along with other preferential treatment that women receive might be part of the issue? Perhaps that should be addressed instead of attempts by many writers to portray themselves as “victims” and the men as the bad guys?

      • Peter Molin Says:

        Nunya, the articles I mention represent efforts to find new ways to write about war, the military, and women’s issues and perspectives without suggesting that the whole story is about being a victim of toxic masculinity and patriarchy, which is an excellent development, imo. Still, it’s a little too soon to say that we should just ignore the fact that many women report meeting massive institutional and cultural hostility while in uniform.

        I think we are in agreement that your list of grievances are points of tension that the military should address, or could do a better job addressing. I’m not sure about your claim that many problems are being denied or suppressed—they’re a matter of public record aren’t they, identified (in most cases) by the military itself as issues that impact quality-of-life and readiness and which are discussed in the news from time-to-time? We probably have different ideas about the nature of the problems and their solutions, but I look forward to seeing how the military gets after them in the near and long term.

      • Nunya Says:

        Peter,
        None of the issues I bring up are addressed in the media or by advocates, such as yourself. You are skipping around the topic and continue to try to frame it as women being held back, victims or you bring in the patriarchy. Come on, you’re virtue signaling, you are not asking real questions, not searching for real stories or answers and you don’t care about the other issues that go with this. You’re taking the easy way out instead of being fair, objective and most importantly honest with the readers and yourself.

  3. Peter Molin Says:

    Nunya, you seem pretty sure you have a monopoly on determining what’s “fair” and “objective,” but I think in every response to you I’ve conceded points you’ve made and agreed the military and its civilian leadership have problems to solve. I haven’t seen any of that from you—just a determination to assert you are right about everything and insult me when I don’t agree with you 100% at all times. You haven’t critiqued, or even given evidence that you’ve read, any of the authors I discuss—all of whom are better writers and more formidable opponents than me—nor have you taken me up on my hint to discuss ways women might be integrated into the infantry without so much fuss and rancor.

    What are your recommendations that might usefully address the issues you don’t like? Who specifically is supposed to solve them? You seem set in your conviction that women themselves are a big part of the problem, along with politically-correct members of the chain-of-command and blog-writers who coddle them—but you haven’t stated what your overall agenda is here, so I’m prepared for you once more to characterize my impression of your view as “a straw man,” “virtue signaling,” or a willful avoidance of “the truth.”

    I took note of a phenomenon that is clearly happening and described some aspects of it, and offered my opinion on it—what else are blogs for? I’m not read by generals and politicians, or anybody, really, and your view of things is completely in the ascendancy, culturally speaking. You could start a blog today called “Lots of Problems Involving Women in the Military That Need to Be Addressed (But Are Not Because Too Many People Are Politically Correct),” and create Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts to promote it and within two weeks attract more sympathetic readers than I’ve garnered in four years. To get the word out, you might also send your manifesto to the President, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, the New York Times, and Fox News, rather than posting it in the Reply section of a blog that gets 100 hits at most on a good day.

    Or, you could write a great short story, novel, poem, or memoir—or make a movie—that explores the current disarray and hypocrisy of gender polices in the military, based on your own experience as a soldier, Marine, sailor, or airman who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and then I could write a review of it, which is what Time Now’s purpose is (though not limited by any means to gender issues). Do it, and do it well, and you’ll really have my attention.

    You seem very fired up about issues that concern you and are frustrated that the entire world, and especially me, doesn’t see things your way. I’m sorry, I’m not going to bust a blood vessel worrying whether infantrymen (or women) can deadlift 160 pounds or not, and I served in the infantry for many years. I’ve also served in many non-infantry units and assignments alongside women, to include downrange, and the biggest problems I observed were always the result of men who either had unrequited crushes or chips on their shoulders. I won’t be bullied into taking up a position that the women with whom I served would perceive as fundamentally hostile to their service, so we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on some things, OK? Please don’t write back unless you take up two or three of the articles I’ve referenced and offer some sort of specific analysis of their merits or limitations. Thanks.


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