“Describe a barn…”

The Linda E. A. Wachtmeister Contemplative Garden at VCCA – I think. There are so many enormous boxwood hedges here that I’m often not quite sure where I am with relation to the map.

I always find the criticism of war literature on friend and colleague Peter Molin’s blog Time Now thought-provoking, and one of his posts this week challenged me to some personal reflection. A subsequent e-mail exchange provoked me into writing about it. Thanks, Pete. At least I’m getting words out this morning!

I’m currently at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for two and a half weeks courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts, which kindly funded the visit fully and provided me with a $1,000 stipend through their scholarship program for artists who are military veterans. VCCA houses a group of about 25 writers, artists, and composers for stays of up to a month, feeds us three squares a day, gives us studio space in a renovated barn or cottages, and then leaves us alone to work or socialize as we choose. Pretty good deal, and for those of you concerned about how I’m using your tax dollars? I’ve been working from either 0600 or 0700 every morning until about midnight, with short breaks for an afternoon walk, meals, and perhaps for a pre-dinner happy hour involving wine from the local Food Lion. I’m doing my best to earn back your investment by writing—well, trying to write—something that’s as good as I know how to make it.

One of the things that some of the other writers here and I have discussed during our social time here is the challenge for many women of learning to believe in our right to create art, and to believe in the quality of the art that we create. A lot of the women here have horror stories about times their work was derided, devalued, and dismissed. I had my creative writing ambitions shot down in a ball of flames twice: once by a visiting writer at the college where I got my undergraduate degree in 1982, and again by a professor at another college when I took her class on shore duty in 1995. These are long stories for some other blog post, but the bottom line was that I let that discouragement, self-doubt, and a raging case of impostor syndrome deprive me of an art form I love for almost a quarter of a century. In those years, I did no serious creative writing. Made no effort to practice, or to improve my craft. I exercised no self-discipline and didn’t write anything creative regularly. I scribbled random journal entries or long e-mails if the spirit moved me, but otherwise set aside the cherished dream of writing a book that had first arisen when I was in the fourth grade. Funny thing is, I’d never allowed the naysayers to keep me down when it came to my military service or my intelligence work. I had no problem putting myself out there, demanding the opportunity to do jobs that I knew I could do well, and (at least after my first tour) insisting that I get appropriate recognition for having done them.

Military service gave me back some confidence. I decided to use my GI Bill to pursue what I loved, even if it was completely impractical. I applied to the Master of Arts in Writing program at Johns Hopkins and was accepted in 2005, three years before I retired from the Navy. By 2004, the Army and Marines were grinding themselves down with repeated deployments. Their support communities reached out to the Navy and Air Force with requests for “individual augmentees” to fill ground support billets in Iraq and Afghanistan. At first these “IA” assignments were voluntary; sailors and airmen who believed in the fight, or wanted to do what they felt they’d been training for, jumped at the chance to deploy. I had strong reservations about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—something else for another blog post or essay some day—so when my commanding officer offered me the first shot at a plum IA assignment, I declined to volunteer. It was probably the first time in my entire sixteen-year career that I hadn’t jumped at the chance to take on a challenging job that promised both excitement and great bullets on a fitness report.

Late in that year, though, naval intelligence was exhausting its pool of sailors and officers motivated to go to the Middle East in a ground support job. The Secretary of the Navy, or maybe it was the Chief of Naval Operations, sent out a message that all naval personnel in certain specialties such as communications and intelligence were immediately and indefinitely on 30-day standby to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. Update your wills, do the following online training modules, make sure your affairs are in order and your seabag is packed.

The following spring, I enrolled in the Craft of Fiction class at Johns Hopkins. To teach setting and mood, our instructor, Margaret Meyers, asked us to complete the “John Gardner challenge”: Consider the following as a possible exercise in description.  Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.  Do not mention the son, or war, or death. It’s an exercise that anyone can do, and one of the cool things that comes out of it is that every single person in a class will describe a different barn, from the point of view of a different man with a unique background, and the result will be something original and, usually, deeply unsettling to the writer.

I put everything I felt about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into that exercise. And it wouldn’t let me sleep at night. I kept going back to it. My mother-in-law read it and offered a twenty-minute critique that ended with me half-shouting in exasperation, “Judy, there’s no law against you writing your own barn. So if you think you can write a goddamn barn so much better than I can, I suggest that you sit down and start writing it already!” The twinges of the old self-doubt and impostor syndrome began to resurface, because if your family doesn’t love your work, the critics sure as hell won’t either; but the train of that story had already left the station and there was no going back. I couldn’t not work on it. I brushed off my mother-in-law (though I never permitted her to read any of my work again). I allowed Iraq and Vietnam to creep onto the page, and the original paragraph morphed into a short story.

Although I didn’t think I was ready to submit anything for publication anywhere, in a why-the-hell-not moment just after New Year’s in 2007, I entered it in two categories in the West Virginia Writers annual competition. It took a first place in “Appalachian Theme” and a second place in “Emerging Writers.” At the conference, the editor of a regional literary journal cornered me, asked me to send him the story, and requested the right of first refusal on it. So exciting! I’d arrived!

I did as he asked. The day I got home, I printed the story out on nice paper (this was before most journals were using Submittable), attached a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and mailed it off to Kentucky. And I waited. I was afraid to send a follow-up query, and believed that simultaneous submission to other journals was inappropriate when a respected editor had solicited my manuscript. I watched the mailbox for a full year, and never received either an acceptance or a rejection.

The story went out again to two other journals requesting “Appalachian” or “southern” fiction in 2009, as part of the thesis class requirement to submit finished work. Both journals declined to publish it. I’d made it to retirement in 2008 without being called up for an involuntary individual augmentation assignment, so I didn’t feel that what I had to say about war much mattered to anyone. There would be much more interest in the writing of the troops who’d deployed. After grad school I decided I was done trying to write military stories. I filed the manuscript and forgot about it for a few years.

In 2013, I started editing for the Veterans Writing Project’s literary journal O-Dark-Thirty. After editing for several months, I remembered my little barn story and decided to try one more time to place it. I looked for a journal that seemed like good fit, and fired it off to Stone Canoe. They snapped it right up: it was published in 2014, nine years after I’d written the first draft.

When former Marine Tracy Crow and I were writing and editing the history/anthology hybrid It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistanwe were shocked to find out how women’s stories about war, just like their contributions to the war effort, had been discredited and dismissed, or overlooked entirely. Very few women veterans of World War Two wrote and published war memoirs before the 1990s, when the 50th anniversary of milestones like D-Day renewed American interest in that war and those who fought it. Most didn’t believe that their contributions had been significant, or that anyone would be interested in what they had to say about how they’d done their little part for the national defense. Their families had to convince them that their efforts had mattered, and cajole them into writing things down so their stories would not be lost.

Knowing what I know now? I should have shotgunned that story to every journal calling for submissions in the back pages of Poets & Writers. I should have treated the submission and rejection process just like I treated the naysayers in the Navy: Oh, yeah? Fuck you, I can so. I’m good enough, and you want me to do that job. You just don’t know it yet.

What would have happened if I’d treated my writing career the way I’d treated my military service? Oh, yeah? Fuck you, I can so write. I’m good enough, I have something to say about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you want to listen. You just don’t know it yet. Maybe the story would have seen daylight in the first decade of the war. “Memorial Day” would hardly have revolutionized war writing—it’s not particularly innovative, and it’s certainly not the barn that I’d write if I wrote it now, even though I still stand by every thought and feeling that went into it. But if I’d believed in myself more, and fought harder for the thing I had created, it might have found its way into print sooner. I might even have been able to say to my mother-in-law before she passed away, See, Judy? That barn was just fine the way I wrote it.

I wonder if the way that women’s experiences of war have been dismissed and scorned over and over by historians, editors, critics—most of whom are white and male—is  continuing to inhibit other women veterans who have stories to tell.

Posted in Fiction, Literary Criticism, Stories, Writing Life | 3 Comments

Between Us “Girls”: The US Naval Institute’s 2016 Naval History “Athena Conference”

I’m going to call out an admiral and a general in this post, with all due respect and only the kindest of intent.

But first, I’d like to start with a story that I’ve told elsewhere.

As a lieutenant on USS Mount Whitney, I preferred standing in port quarterdeck watches with boatswain’s mates. They were rude, profane, and funny; they had the neatest uniforms, sharpest salutes and biggest hearts of any sailor afloat. I spent a four-hour watch one hot summer afternoon in Norfolk listening to the Messenger of the Watch and Petty Officer of the Watch, two of my favorite boatswain’s mates, evaluate the physical attributes and personalities of every female sailor who walked by on the pier below. Each was deemed ugly enough to scare the white off rice, and they all eventually fell into one of two categories: sluts (who would sleep with everyone) and bitches (who would sleep with everyone but them).

Finally the Petty Officer of the Watch shook his head sadly. “Women in the Navy,” he said with a sigh of regret. “They ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of lyin, cheatin, smokin, drinkin, cussin whores.”

“Excuse me?” I said. “I beg to differ.”

They’d either forgotten either my presence, or that their Officer of the Deck just happened to be a woman in the Navy. They spun around to face me with the look of men who know that a woman holds them securely by the balls and hasn’t yet decided what to do about it. I could easily have written them up for disrespect to a commissioned officer and made the charges stick at captain’s mast.

They stammered and sweated and repeated the phrase “present company excepted, ma’am” a few times.

I smiled, and I hope it was not a particularly nice smile. “Gentlemen,” I said, “I have never in my life smoked a cigarette.”

Aboard Mount Whitney from 1995 to 1997, among the first small cohort of female sailors assigned to naval combatants, the first priority was to prove that we could do the jobs. Women had to get in the door before we could try to change the culture of gender relations in the military. Some harassment and extra work seemed, to many women in my generation, a small price to pay for that opportunity.

img_1461So I wasn’t surprised at the answers that Vice Admiral Jan Tighe and Major General Lori Reynolds, USMC, gave to an earnest young midshipman at the US Naval Institute’s annual history conference last Thursday during the question-and-answer period after the first panel discussion (“Blazing the Trail: How Did Military Women Clear the Path?”)

The midshipman noted that many people at the Naval Academy still referred to the women midshipmen as “girls,” and asked the panelists for their advice about how to handle it.

You could see the admiral and the general, two women who have spent decades kicking down the doors that kept women out and taking heat for doing it, looking at each other for a few seconds. Compared to some of the things that our generation of women have been called, “girl” might seem pretty harmless. Certainly it was among the least vulgar of the epithets many of our male shipmates tossed at us.

And the women sitting across from me, members of USNA Class of 1980 – the first to be integrated into the former bastion of nautical masculinity – sort of tittered behind their hands. “We were almost all GURLs back then,” I heard one say.

The General Unrestricted Line designator was the Navy’s early attempt to create separate-but-equal career paths for men and women. Until the mid-1990’s, the few female officers who trained in surface and air warfare were restricted to service on supply ships and in aviation transport and aggressor squadrons. The rest were designated General Unrestricted Line Officers – GURLs, correctly pronounced “gee-yoo-arr-ells” but mispronounced, when the intent was to belittle or demean, “girls.” GURLs served ashore in support positions: undersea surveillance, space and electronic warfare, and shore station management. The community’s flag billets could be filled by men who opted out of warfare communities. Despite PR to the contrary, General Unrestricted Line Officers simply did not have the same opportunities or respect as unrestricted line officers who commanded ships and squadrons.

So when, for the first fourteen weeks of Naval Officer Candidate School, where I was the only female officer candidate in my company, our drill instructor – a boatswain’s mate, and the first sailor to successfully complete the Marine Corps drill instructor school – called me nothing but “Girl” I was doubly offended. First, I started OCS as a prospective supply officer and finished as an intelligence officer – both designators staffed equally by men. I was never in the mostly-female General Unrestricted Line officer pipeline, and I resented being grouped with the GURLs just because of my gender. Second, and worse: while the drill instructors rendered to my male colleagues the small courtesy of using the surnames that would soon be preceded by “Ensign,” I remained a nameless, faceless representative of my gender, inferior and ineligible for even the tiniest scrap of respect accorded us in basic training.

So I understood immediately what the midshipman knew, and what she wanted to know when she asked her question. Being called a “girl” when all the Y-chromosome people around you are being called “men” or “midshipmen” is sexist, and it’s unacceptable in the modern Navy. At Everyday Feminism, Carmen Rios offers four reasons that it’s sexist to call grown women “girls”:

  1. It infantilizes them. For example, here’s something I heard several times a day at OCS: “Whitsett! Gillette! Dean! Girl! Drop and give me fifty!” If the DIs had called male officer candidates “Boy!” it would have been infantilizing and demeaning, like calling a dog: “Here, boy!”
  1. It perpetuates rape culture, which continues to permeate many areas of the armed forces and which is prejudicial to good order and discipline.
  1. It’s disrespectful. It diminishes women and contributes to the failure of many to take women seriously. In the armed forces, we’re expected to respect seniors, subordinates, and peers. Women in uniform deserve respect.
  1. It indicates that the speaker is not taking women seriously. The midshipman who asked that question, like her predecessors in the Class of 1980, intends to be taken seriously and wanted to know how to make it happen.

I don’t think that Admiral Tighe and General Reynolds intended not to take her seriously. I suspect that they were just thinking that other alligators are closer to the boat. But I’d bet that the midshipman found their answers unsatisfactory. I certainly did. Admiral Tighe made some remarks about how you just have to ignore some things; General Reynolds’ advice – a mantra that I particularly hated to hear when I was on active duty – was that you have to “pick your battles.”

On the whole, both things are true. The military is a rough environment and any junior officer needs to develop a thick skin. It’s how one learns to stay calm under intense pressure. Let the small stuff go, focus on the mission. It’s also true that you have to prioritize the problems you want to correct (though in my experience, far too many senior officers used the phrase “Pick your battles” as shorthand for “You don’t and won’t have my support on this issue”). Indeed, the women midshipmen of Classes 2017-2020 are still going to have to develop a thick skin about gender-related insults: from everything I hear, the environment has improved – but sexism is still rampant in the military.

But that doesn’t mean that in picking their battles, future military women have to condition themselves to overlook sexist language. This new generation is much more savvy, much better educated about toxic sexism, and much less patient with that bullshit than we were. They know it’s wrong, and they don’t want to let it slide. What I heard underlying the midshipman’s question was, “With all due respect to the women who came before us, we have already picked this battle. We want to know how to fight it and win.”

And they’re right, according to General Ann Dunwoody, USA, the morning’s keynote speaker. She said several times in her address to the conference that a good leader never walks by a mistake; if you walk by a mistake, you’ve just set a new low standard. Overlooking sexist language is walking by a mistake, and it telegraphs to the speaker that you’ve accepted a low standard. When I made a joke out of the boatswain’s mate’s assessment of Navy women, I accepted his low standard – and worse, because I was an officer and he was a petty officer, I abdicated my responsibility as an officer and accepted that he had a right to set that standard because he was a man. He was real Navy, and despite my rank, I was just an impostor.

To that midshipman: You have my sincerest apology. I was doing the best that I could at the time – but it was not good enough. Don’t ignore the insults. Don’t repeat my mistake.

When we answer the questions of the up and coming generation of military women with advice that allows problems to perpetuate, we’re walking by mistakes. We’re admitting that our standards aren’t high enough, and that we don’t expect the next generation to set higher ones. That dooms our generation of leaders to the same irrelevance in the modern military as a brontosaurus. Makes us mere historical artifacts. I’m retired now; I can afford to be an artifact. Senior women who are still in uniform: those young women need you, your highest standards, and your best advice – advice that comes not just from who we were and what we had to do, but that recognizes who the new generation is and what they should do differently.

A few hours later, after the evening panel of younger women, I wandered over to listen to Lieutenant Kayla Barron, USNA 2010, advising a couple of lieutenants junior grade – one wore a SWO pin, and I think that the other was working on earning her dolphins on either an SSBN or SSGN. I wished the midshipman who had asked the “girls” question had been there to listen, because Lieutenant Barron had the right answers. She said that she didn’t encounter sexism from peers and younger people at the Academy, but that in her capacity as aide to the academy superintendent she does have to field a lot of rude and disrespectful comments about her gender and her submarine warfare pin from older alumni, especially those who graduated in the 1960s and early 1970s. She said that you can’t change those guys; those are the ones you just have to ignore. But they’re irrelevant. They aren’t the ones who matter.

She then told the two younger officers that in dealing with sexist language in the Fleet, she found that what worked for her was to take an offender aside and point out that sexist language (the example she used was of a good and thoughtful petty officer who referred to subordinates as “pussies”) was demeaning to both men and women, and that it was not acceptable in their division or duty section. Not because it offended her, but because it wasn’t sufficiently professional. Watching her, I’d have to say that she delivered the chastisement in a firm and professional – but friendly and educational – way. She added that the proof of success came some time later: she overheard the petty officer tell a subordinate that it was not acceptable to use sexist and demeaning language, period. Not because it would offend the woman or offend the junior officer, not because it was “politically correct.” Just because it was the professional way to go on. That was the standard.

Two male midshipmen, in leadership positions judging by the rows of thin stripes on their shoulderboards, cornered her next to ask how they could better support their women classmates and the women they would serve with in the Fleet. They wanted to be better allies.

I’d love to see Lieutenant Barron with some stars on her collar one of these days. She offered younger officers the kind of advice and leadership that the next generation of military personnel – women and men – need.

A former colleague who served in the 1980s reminded me that the USNI conference was held in a rarefied atmosphere. Almost everyone attending was an active or former commissioned officer (the Marines, bless them, had sent about a half-dozen lance corporals). The service academies give future leaders four years to contemplate leadership deeply. They’re elites. And the attitudes and goals of women officers, my colleague said, aren’t always shared by young enlisted women. In her experience, junior enlisted women resented women officers’ efforts to open up new occupational specialties, seeing those efforts as attempts to further their own careers by being trailblazers at the expense of enlisted women, who had to work harder and under more adverse conditions than officers every time a new occupational specialty opened up.

I told her that in my experience – admittedly dated now, too – junior enlisted women were a lot like junior enlisted men: not all found military service a professional calling. The ones who did were willing to work hard under adverse conditions. And senior enlisted women who had made the commitment to a military career understood the necessity and advantages of opening all career paths and demanding equity in the military workplace.

Overall, I left the conference feeling heartened about the future of women in the Navy and in the armed forces. It will take time for a new attitude toward sexism to trickle down from the hallowed halls of the service academies to the engine rooms and the field. But I’m confident that it will happen. The new generation of naval leaders appears to be an improved generation, at least when it comes to sexist language.

Posted in History, In the News | 6 Comments

The Water Is Off in the Fountain. Don’t Let the Lights Go Out, Too.

The fountain is dry.

Friends who are veterans (and family members):

I had an email yesterday from the Women’s Memorial Foundation, which is in immediate and serious danger of closing.

The Foundation has been forced to cut staff, and when I visited the Memorial earlier in the week I noticed that the fountain is turned off. The Foundation is looking for sources of funding from corporations, organizations, federal programs and philanthropic entities. They need us to pitch in to keep the lights on until funding from those sources becomes available.


Here are just a few of the Foundation’s many shelves of books by and about military women.


Tracy Crow Weidemaier and I could not have written our book (which we’ll be able to say more about soon!) without the help and support of the WIMSA staff and the inspiration of the exhibits at the Memorial. We literally spent days combing through their library, learning from their curators and historians, and studying the exhibits. There is no other resource like it available to scholars and researchers studying military women and our history.

If you’re a woman veteran, please consider joining me in sending the Memorial even a small donation (electronic form can be found here). This is our memorial. Let’s help take care of it.



“Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom. That our resolve was just as great as the brave men who stood among us. And with victory our hearts were just as full and beat just as fast – that the tears fell just as hard for those we left behind.”

– 1LT Anne (Sosh) Brehm, US Army Nurse Corps
China-India-Burma Theater, World War II

Posted in Stories, writing life | Tagged | Leave a comment

Writing Life: Down the Rabbit Hole (Again)

I’ve been struggling for a couple of weeks to write the introductory section of Chapter Four of the book Tracy Crow and I  are working on. I have pages of research notes and only 1,500 words or so to write. It shouldn’t be hard. But I couldn’t confirm the anecdote I wanted to lead off with, and without an opening, I couldn’t get the words down on paper. 

Tonight I was rereading notes about nurses in World War I, and realized that one of the anecdotes I was reading would make a perfect substitute for the one that may prove unverifiable. I started to rewrite it in my own words. But then the train of thought ran away from me…

Why was she carrying patients up the hill?

Where in France are Verdun and Sedan, and where are the Meuse and the Argonne?

How big was an evacuation hospital? How many staff? Patients? What kind? How many?

What exactly did it do? 

Where were the front lines on November 2, 1918?

What is indirect fire? (I should have remembered that one I took an amphibious warfare class but it has been more than a quarter century ago – and I didn’t pay much attention to the fire support lesson because women weren’t allowed to do it back then).

And, perhaps most importantly:

What did a WWI nurse’s rain hat look like?

Suddenly I look up. It’s 2:00 am, and I’ve only written two sentences. Down the rabbit hole again!

Posted in Writing Life | 2 Comments

The Matriarch of Contemporary Women Veterans’ Literature

Since Cara Hoffman wrote her op-ed “The Things She Carried” for the New York Times in 2014, critics have either pointed out the “absence” of women veterans’ narratives in the canon of war literature, or wondered what female authors today’s women veterans who choose to write about war can turn to as models – perhaps suggesting women who served before the current generation never wrote anything worth imitating or attempting to surpass. It is past time to start correcting two common misperceptions about women veterans and literature: first, that women veterans’ voices are almost completely absent in the literary world; and second, that women veterans who wish to write have only male role models for their writing.

Mary Lee Settle

Mary Lee Settle

I’d like to tackle that second misperception with this post. Women veterans have our very own distinguished literary matriarch – Mary Lee Settle: an American woman, wife of a British soldier and mother of a young son, who enlisted in the Royal Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in World War Two. She wrote twenty-three books, fifteen of them novels; in 1978, she won the National Book Award for Fiction with her novel Blood Tie; and in 1980 she founded the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the largest peer-juried literary award in America. Her memoir All the Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman 2nd Class 2146391 is a short but perceptive, candid, and lyrical exploration of her experience of military service in wartime England.

Settle proves that even women who served in support roles can make unique and important contributions to the literature of war (and to literature in general). Women veterans writing memoir would do well to examine her work as an example of the unique perspective that women can bring to the discussion of war. Settle’s memoir is compelling despite not being male-centric, set in the heat of battle, heroic, or romantic. She explores themes of who really fought the war, women’s service at a time when enlistment was a violation of gender norms and expectations, fear, memory, wartime glory, and the nature of trauma with a wry voice, unsparing observation of character, and acid wit.

* * *

In January 1940, West Virginia native and Washington, D.C. socialite Mary Lee Settle went to Toronto with her English husband Rodney Weathersbee so he could volunteer for the Canadian Army. Toronto was full of British citizens who couldn’t get back to England, including English pilots who’d been sent to Canada to train away from the Blitz. There a young RAF fighter pilot trainee asked her to take his place if he were shot down. “I promised,” she said. “It was that simple.”

WAAF recruiting poster.

WAAF recruiting poster.

After she returned to West Virginia to live with her family, the young pilot was shot down – though Settle did not know at the time that he’d survived and been taken prisoner. In the summer of 1942, leaving her young son with her family, she went to Washington to try to volunteer for military service but was turned away. Eventually military attachés at the British Embassy in Washington, whom she’d met through her husband, arranged for her to enlist in the Royal Women’s Auxiliary Air Force – the WAAF.

Settle dedicates her memoir to the WAAF women of the “other ranks,” below the rank of sergeant. The book is a scathing commentary on the difference between the glamorous circles she moved in before the war (those attaché friends!) and the people who actually fought it. She’s an acute observer of character, and describes her fellow WAAFs – officer, NCO, and “other ranks” (junior enlisted) – with a wit as sharp as a Gurkha knife.

At first Settle doesn’t fit in with the women in whose company she finds herself. The difference between her body and those of the British women enlisting with her, at a Nissen hut where everyone had to strip naked for medical exams, nearly brings her to tears. Not only are their bodies malformed from poor nutrition; they seem prematurely aged. Head lice infect nearly half of them.

Settle is set apart not just by her healthy body, but by her habits. She takes a hot shower every morning while the other girls neither wash in hot water nor change their underwear for a week. She strips down to the buff every night and sleeps in pajamas. She can’t eat the heavy, starchy food. On her first liberty off post, with ten shillings’ pay in her pocket, she avoids the theaters and bars where the other girls go. She buys “USA” flashes – insignia for her uniform showing her country of origin – and some stationery and candy. Then she goes to the library to write letters.

WAAF shoulder flashes - these are Canadian; I can't find a photo of the ones Settle would have worn.

WAAF shoulder flashes – these are Canadian; I can’t find a photo of the “USA” insignia that Settle would have worn.

When she returns to the hut she’s attacked and tossed out the door; she lands on her back in a puddle, her letters and candy destroyed. She lies in the mud swearing until two friends pick her up and carry her in, and she silences the jeering girls by displaying her new shoulder flashes. Eventually she sees changes in the British girls and begins to understand that they are becoming healthier in the WAAF while she’s losing weight and getting sick. As bad as the conditions are, they’re better than the ones from which the girls have come.

Settle verbally skewers the women she dislikes. The WAAF administrative officer who teaches the basic training sex education class looks “as if the only sex she had experienced was a flipped towel in a locker room.” And she rips into the three WAAF NCOs in her unit:

…the three lady NCO’s were almost parodies of everything we like to think is not true about the women’s forces. They were blindly autocratic, they had all the hopes but few of the attributes of femininity and, unfortunately, they were as ugly as the wicked sisters in Cinderella.

 Warrant Officer Boggs was brown, lean as a snake, leather covered; she flicked her whip with a sarcasm that stung as it ridiculed – from time to time soft girls got crushes on her. Sergeant Love, on the other hand, was six feet tall and weighed nearly two hundred pounds. She, the best of the lot, had inside her bulk the longing heart of a romantic. Sergeant Smerd was just five feet tall – a tiny, sadistic bundle of wire, without flesh between her skin and her bones, her eyes agate cold. She was married to a sergeant on another station, and since her way of putting me into my place was to order me to run behind her bicycle like a dog as she rode around the station, her tiny legs pumping away, I hope they didn’t breed and train up a child.

Unfortunately, an RAF sergeant pilot on whom one of the NCOs has set her sights prefers to flirt with Settle. After a dance, she puts Settle on report for violating curfew and brings her for “trial” before a female WAAF officer, whom she describes thus:

Flight Officer Trimmingham was an ex-tennis player, a good sport and an absolutely unquestioning snob. To her a good backhand, a cultivated voice and a contempt for either abstract intelligence or woolly compassion were all a part of divine right. I’m sure she had never questioned a motive or a position in her life.

Her scorn for classism isn’t limited to her fellow WAAFs or even to the British. Her commanding officer, an RAF pilot, has dined with and been charmed by the American hostess (called the “lady”) of the Red Cross canteen in Bath. In what he expects is an act of compassion, he orders Settle to go to the canteen for dinner. This makes her homesick for an American voice, so on her next leave she follows the order.

I was stopped at the desk and told that the canteen was not for Allied troops, while the passing GI’s stared. I asked for the lady. She came roaring down the crowded hall, oh busier, busier than the lady at dinner with my CO. I explained who I was and thanked her for the message. She had, I suppose, forgotten it. She whipped out, in that edged voice Southern ladies reserve for the back rooms of their lives – not for gentlemen at dinner – that if I wanted to come to the canteen, I could put on a Red Cross uniform and work. Otherwise, the place was not for Allied other ranks to “hang out.” I thanked her, stuck in the hallway among the GI’s, some of whom had stopped to listen. For once in my life, I got the words there, instead of – impotently – later, as an esprit d’escalier.[1]

I said, “All right, and if you want to join the war sometime, I’ll lend you my uniform,” and left with my face burning.

 So in London I avoided the Red Cross, knowing that inside there would be the girls I had grown up with, with their two kinds of voices.

The incident that ultimately cements her allegiance to the “other ranks” – the real turning point in the narrative – takes place on a cold Christmas night. The secret that she uncovers and what she does in response is so shocking and so moving that it must be read in its entirety. I will confess: I cried.

* * *

Allied merchant ship losses to German U-boats, 1939-1946 (Source: US Merchant Marine)

Allied merchant ship losses to German U-boats, 1939-1946 (Source: US Merchant Marine)

Although Settle enlisted in the WAAF in a flush of idealism, she gained an understanding of the real experience of war – one that would resonate with many veterans of more recent wars – before she even entered basic training. She crossed the Atlantic on the merchant vessel City of Delhi during the worst of the German U-boat attacks in the fall of 1942. A young Scot, an apprentice merchantman, points out the ships in their formation that are the “coffin corners,” the ships at the corners of the convoy, in most danger of attack from German U-boats. If the “coffin corners” are hit, he explains, no one stops to pick up survivors. The U-boats wait for rescue ships and sink them, too. Suddenly she understands why a Norwegian sailor had told her not to bother carrying her Mae West. That was when the fear began, she says:

It grew, as we sailed slowly that morning, grew to a level of recognition and stayed with us – fear, rolling along under us like an imagined double, an evil alter ego to our sailing. No one mentioned it except quietly to another single person or in jokes or in sudden silences that followed unfamiliar sounds.

Two weeks into their transatlantic voyage, the U-boats find their convoy. Settle thinks at first that she has dreamed the sound she heard late at night.

In the early morning….the right rear coffin corner. It was empty. I could see the other ships changing places on the horizon. By noon the corner was closed. It seemed as abstract as losing a pawn in chess. Most of the men keeping a kind of vigil along the starboard rail that morning were the merchant seamen. They said little, only watched while the convoy reclosed its square.

Later, the two corvettes escorting the convoy and her ship launch depth charges.

We were not attacked again; whatever marauder had lurked along after us was gone or sunk, and the water had closed back over where it had been as impersonally as the ship in the early morning had neatly sailed to close the convoy’s coffin corner.

In response, the passengers decided that night to put on a show. She explains: I would see this happen over and over when the event, the battle, no matter how terrible, would break the debilitating stalemate of the body in its state of war and cause a communal adrenalin rise – a precious, simple sense of being vulnerable and alive.

Afterwards, I was learning to live with fear – not a caught breath warning danger, as of a fall, but a presence – a patient, lasting undertone, an evil possibility. To look back on safety was to look back on a kind of physical innocence, an unknowing never to be regained. Gray was its color – all the fog-gray, sea-gray of rubble, of endless English days, like the inside of a brain, gray in faces, especially of women, gray joyless sex, tired gray dirty arms, fatigue-gray. All other color I remember is in contrast to this basic dim twilight gray of the war.

After basic training, Settle decides she can’t see herself being a WAAF administrative officer. She’d noticed the connection “between the morale and the machines” – the closer an airman or airwoman was to the fight, to the operations of the planes, the higher the morale. So she volunteers as soon as possible for “Signals” – to be an aircraft radio-telephone operator. She describes her shift:

Interior view of a control room with male and female personnel logging aircraft at a blackboard and on the telephone. A group with binoculars stands at a window observing the planes as they land. Artist: Harold William Hailstone. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum Collection.

Interior view of a control room with male and female personnel logging aircraft at a blackboard and on the telephone. A group with binoculars stands at a window observing the planes as they land.
Artist: Harold William Hailstone.                     Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum Collection.

In our ears there was a perpetual grumbling of pilots calling to each other thinly down a long sound tunnel of distance. Over it all, striking at the fuse wires, the human element, German jamming was a curtain through which we listened, an undulating carrier wave, maddening and incessant, its efficiency defeating itself for a while because after a few weeks it, like the rumble of the planes, became a part of silence, staying insidiously always in our ears on and off the set, as if it were lodged in our brains, a small, monstrous parody of the hum of the world….On eight-hour duty we learned to point our concentrated hearing through jamming at strength 3 or 4 (5 was the loudest) like bird dogs to the tiny strength-1 sounds beyond it, answering, transmitting or receiving the clipped English without passion or person or intonation beyond the code sounds themselves, pencils flying through the logbooks before us, logging each fragment of the sound, all as impersonal as the color of the station, hearing always through the jamming and the pinpoints of dialogue the urged rumbling of the planes.

Settle was stationed at an RAF training base. The closest she came to war death there was an incident for which she felt partly responsible. On a foggy night, her shift was bringing in trainer aircraft low on fuel. In the chaos, neither she nor her relief managed to successfully relay the engine shutdown order from the flying control officer to a pilot who’d landed his Oxford trainer. A ground crewman trying to refuel the plane in the dark slipped on the wing, fell, and was decapitated by the still-turning propeller. The crewman’s head rolled past Settle in the dark like a ball, brushing her leg just as she lit a cigarette.

Later in the war, in London, she was caught on a sidewalk during a V-1 buzz bomb attack. Her recollection of the event captures the complete vulnerability and helplessness of the unarmed, and the relief of survival:

The sound tore the Kensington air. It stopped. There was complete silence. I folded toward the pavement, as slow as dreaming. The bag splayed out from my hand and hit the palings of an area-way. It spurted cigarettes and cold cream. Face down on the pavement, my head cushioned in my arms against blast, in the position of grief, I waited. My body yearned toward the protection of the concrete. It would not let me in. The air split apart in a vast yell of sound. The pavement surged up to slap my chest. There was silence, and through me, in answer to the slap, a surge of life that had halted in the waiting. I was alive….I smelled the arid flying rubble of the burst houses, but I did not look back. We did not gape at the death of other people. There was a politeness. I picked up a hot piece of shrapnel with my handkerchief. I was in the relief of life. After such recognitions, to be alive is to bear a gift, a sense of gentleness, never a right. Through the war one felt it given, over and over, as a gift.

V-1 "Buzz Bomb"

V-1 “Buzz Bomb”

* * *

Settle is as ruthlessly honest about the effects of war trauma as she is about social class and fear. She was no stranger to “adrenaline addiction” and post-traumatic stress, and she points a finger right at her generation for not discussing something so important.

What is the quality of war that so many miss and that makes peace seem dull, undirectional, lacking in zest? What is it that we, as a generation, have ‘told around’ as if it were a secret we could not name?….It was edge, a full awakening, an adrenal heightening caused by fatigue and an atavistic sense of danger that made the senses expand and extend, that made most of the young who could bear the extension of awareness miss forever that singing of the warning senses, that cat awareness….

But for the already sensitized, that awareness can be developed beyond the physical capacity to carry it, as if a machine were overloaded….The wave of deaths and suicides of highly intelligent men, the burning-out of promise, the lack of large, sustained bodies of works of art in the talented, after the war, were partly the result of this overloading, and in the rest who had been forced alive, there was a residue of sadness for what they could no longer achieve on their own. They tried to go back to peacetime, to sleep, but they had been as fully alive as wary animals, and they remembered it and wasted themselves in nostalgia.

In the already aware, it sometimes had a terrifying effect – nothing was closed – and we lived as seers, a little ashamed of what we saw. My hearing, as a result of listening through jamming on the set, became dangerously extended, uncensored….The tactile nerves were exposed – the touch wary and delicate from the running of the machines; the memory of a mane rising along one’s back in the primordial reactions to danger and the night, were a chill warning that would be left over long after the danger had passed to rise impotently, triggered by memory.

Then, in some of us, the awareness stepped over the line, went too far.

First Settle has a panic attack. Then she develops “signals shock” – because of the hours spent listening for radio transmissions through jamming, her mind begins to play tricks on her. She hears fake messages, awake and asleep, and she can no longer tell the difference between real transmissions and phantom ones. Her stomach begins to cramp and distend; her weight has dropped from 140 to 112. The station medical officer orders her to transfer out of the WAAF.

Settle ends her memoir as she is leaving post for the last time, in civilian clothing. The final paragraphs are a searing indictment of war, of those who make war, of those who believe they are running it, and of its human cost.

* * *

Settle couldn’t write her war memoir until twenty-five years after the war ended – and perhaps that distance enabled her to examine her memories critically and to speak truth to power with cutting candor. The letters I wrote my family [were] mostly false like all wartime letters from the forces (nothing else would have passed the censors), she wrote. They were, to me, a wall of lies, censorship, and books about events that I called “Ploesti raid”[2] books, as if the war were really what we had thought it would be in the beginning, in Canada, when we were young, dashing, and lively.

And she is determined not to allow the illusion to stand:

We are accused of being nostalgic. We have been. What we have remembered are events. The Second World War was, for most of us, a state, a state of war, not an event. It was a permeation, a deadening, a waiting, hard to recall. What we have told about is the terrifying relief of battle or the sweet, false relief of leave….For every “historic” event, there were thousands of unknown, plodding people, caught up in a deadening authority, learning to survive by keeping quiet, by “getting by,” by existing in secret, underground; conscripted, shunted, numbered. It took so many of them, so many of their gray days and uprooted lives. It taught them evasive ways to survive. These ways, dangerous to the community and to the spirit, have been a part of the peace.

This may be part of the reason that Settle’s memoir has not become a widely-appreciated part of the canon of war literature despite critical acclaim at the time of its publication. Her lyrical descriptions of dull grayness, bad food, helplessness and vulnerability during attacks, poor leadership and low morale, and the degrading effects of the British class system are not what we wish to remember about the “glory days” of World War Two or the people we like to call the “Greatest Generation,” especially when we are struggling to make sense of the Long Wars that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But if one listens carefully to Settle, she’s saying something important: war stories that focus exclusively on heroic action and manly courage are naive, immature, even deliberate misrepresentations of the nature of war. This was a message that America didn’t want to hear when the war ended, or when her memoir was published, and perhaps – given the commercial success of movies like American Sniper – doesn’t want to hear even now.

In All the Brave Promises, Mary Lee Settle has left an intense, moving, and sometimes profound recollection of her experiences as a woman contributing to the fight against the Nazis. Women veterans who wish to write a memoir would do well to read All the Brave Promises, and to consider how and why Settle disdained tales of masculine derring-do and set a high standard for clarity and brutal honesty about the experience of war.

Mary Lee Settle (date unknown)

Mary Lee Settle (date unknown)

While others may not remember Mary Lee Settle first for her wartime service, she was very clear about its effect on her own memory and identity.

“Old telephone numbers are gone, and addresses where I centered my life, but my serial number – 2146391 – and my rank – Aircraft Woman 2nd Class – are a part of identity, a scar that I will never lose.”


[1] Esprit d’escalier: the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply too late.
[2] Ploesti raid: great heroism and effort expended for a strategic failure. On August 1, 1943, the US Army Air Corps launched a raid from Libyan airfields against nine Romanian oil refineries estimated to produce 1/3 of Germany’s petroleum supply. Despite the effort of the air crews, more than fifty aircraft were lost and 330 airmen killed; oil production at the Ploesti refineries was disrupted for only a few weeks.

Thanks to fellow West Virginian and colleague David Ervin of Military Experience and the Arts for introducing me to the work of Mary Lee Settle. Although I’d been curating my bibliography for two years, I hadn’t found her – perhaps I never would have.

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Writing Life: Year in Review

I’m not usually inclined to write a “year in review,” even in my journal, but I ended up with so many projects about women veterans and writing that a recap seems to be in order – especially since I got pulled away from my original intent for this blog for several months.

I started 2015 refining some short stories about women in or on the fringes of the Navy, applying to a residency where I hoped to finish enough of the stories to work on a collection (wasn’t accepted, but will try again soon), and taking a class on “social media for writers,” which led to the creation of this blog.

Then in April, the Veterans Writing Project sent me to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference (AWP 2015) in Minneapolis. I roomed with memoirist Kayla Williams; met Vietnam War veteran writer Susan O’Neill and Vietnam-era veteran writer Deborah Fries, and O-Dark-Thirty contributor Sylvia Bowersox, and renewed a too-brief acquaintance with Air Force veteran Lauren Halloran. Many “war writers” of both genders, most military but some family members and civilians, attended a dinner where I had the pleasure of sitting with poet/memoirist Brian Turner and fellow Vassar grad, writer, actor, and former Marine Benjamin Busch.

FullSizeRenderUnfortunately, the panel on “women writing war” – to which I had been looking forward – did not include any women veterans who write among the panelists, all of whom were military spouses or civilians. I wasn’t the only woman veteran writer put off by this. Unfortunately, my blog post about it was written when I was still pissed off (and was also emotional from watching my father-in-law die slowly in the hospital). I ended up deleting the post and apologizing to the panelists. However, I stand by my assertion that the exclusion of women writers who had actually been to war from a panel on “women writing war” was short-sighted and insulting. It did open the door for further discussion, though. Kayla Williams, Lauren Halloran & I proposed a panel on women veterans’  writing for AWP 2016 to rectify the omission. In July, we were pleased to learn that our proposal was accepted. Kayla is contributing to two other panels – AWP’s limit – so I’ll take her place (but cannot fill her boots) as moderator on the panel “Unsung Epics: Women Veterans’ Voices” on Saturday, April 2, 2016. LA, here we come!

In May I went to Lawton, Oklahoma for the second Military Experience and the Arts Symposium. Things I learned in classes taught by Elizabeth Heaney and Suzanne Rancourt will be added to the toolbox for the next Veterans Writing Project women veterans’ writing seminar. We’d hoped to offer it in 2015, but due to a funding glitch at the VA, it was rescheduled for 2016.

FullSizeRenderAlso in May, I had lunch with former Marine and author/editor Tracy Crow, who has published a memoir, a military thriller (under the pen name Carver Greene), and a writing guide, and edited the anthology Red, White, & True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present. Our discussion quickly turned into a partnership, the rapid creation of a book proposal, and a contract with the University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books for a book on women veterans – forthcoming in spring 2017. Tracy is an ideal collaborator, and has become a close personal friend as well. During our research we’ve raged, laughed, shed many tears, and once brought the staff of a rather sedate and sleepy archive running to see if we were okay when we shouted “Yes!” and began fist-pumping and cheering at something we discovered in their collection. We can’t wait to share more about our project.

This was the call for submissions, printed on our cover art - the photograph that inspired our choice of theme.

This was the call for submissions, printed on the photograph that inspired our choice of theme. The photo will also be the cover art for the issue.

In the summer the editorial board of O-Dark-Thirty selected women veterans’ writing as the theme of our February 2016 print issue. The response to our call for submissions has been overwhelming and gratifying. The work submitted was just phenomenal – deeply personal as well: I cried when I sent some of the inevitable “decline” (rejection) letters. All of the O-Dark-Thirty editors put a staggering number of hours into reviewing the submissions; we’re editing the final copy for the print issue this week.

Early in the fall, Ron Capps suggested that I propose an academic paper for a panel on women veterans in fiction for the MLA-Northeast Convention in March 2016. Thanks to  Pete Molin’s help with the abstract, my proposal to discuss representations of women veterans’ trauma in fiction by women vets and civilians was accepted. Now I just have to figure out how to write the damn thing – I have no background in academic lit-crit. Should be fun.

Most of the fall season was taken up with reading, research, grant proposal writing, and collaboration with Tracy for our book. I managed to squeeze in a couple of writing classes through The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland – trying to hang onto my fiction writing, but all the other writing commitments have made it tough. After multiple rejections, two of the short-short stories I wrote in November 2014 in Katey Schultz’s “Weekly Flashes” online course were accepted for publication. “Her Husband’s Stars” will appear in CONSEQUENCE Magazine this winter, and Pleiades accepted “Duty Rack” for publication in a veterans’  issue, forthcoming in the summer of 2016. I’m honored to have placed fiction in these two publications.

Spring of 2016 is going to be extremely busy. In February O-Dark-Thirty will not only launch our women veterans’ themed print issue; we’re going to post new work by women veterans to our online journal, The Report, almost every day in February. And on February 19th, The Writer’s Center will be hosting a reading of work from the issue. In March I’ll present that academic paper; the AWP panel is at the end of March/early April; the Veterans Writing Project is partnering with the VA Medical Center in Washington, DC, to offer the women veterans’ writing seminar on April 30-May 1; and our book manuscript is  due to the publisher in June. Oh: and I’m planning a series of new posts for this blog.

Thanks for reading. I hope to bring you some good reviews and good news about women veterans who write in the coming year.

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Writing Life: Stitch-and-Bitch

Was recently reading over some of the emails home that served as my journal of our three-year tour in Moscow. My late mother-in-law, God bless her, had the foresight to print out the ones she found interesting and collect them up into a file for me.

The backstory of the protagonist of one of my short stories, forthcoming this winter in CONSEQUENCE Magazinewas inspired by the love story of the first defense attaché that we served under in Moscow and his wife – though I sincerely hope that the general’s wife never found herself in the fictional situation I’ve thrown at my fictional admiral’s wife!

Here are a few bits about some activities hosted by Mrs. N-., the general’s wife. Looking back on it now, it’s strange to realize that she was also a veteran – of the Army Nurse Corps. I was shamefully underappreciative of the ANC’s history and contributions to gender integration in the military back in those days, and did not know nearly enough about the challenges that military service posed for women of Mrs. N-.’s generation. I might see these events in a different light if I’d had the context for them then that I have now. Or…maybe not.

* * *

May 22, 1999 

Wednesday – “Stitch-and-bitch,” Dave’s characterization of the infrequent (thank God!) “women’s fellowship teas” hosted by N-. N-., wife of our defense attaché. Military and civilian women expected to show for this one. Proper attire: linen dress (no, I don’t own one or want to) and pearls. I wore a business suit and my running shoes (forgot my heels in the office). Military wives, but not military members, are designated to pour tea and coffee according to their spouse’s rank and their time at post. Enlisted at one end of the table, officer at the other. This is a VERY outdated old Army tradition. The whole N-. family are ethical vegetarians at Mrs. N-.’s insistence (whatthehell does she think an Army general does for a living, if not kill things?)….Mrs. N-. herself was once in the Army. Hard to picture it: she has this squeaky voice and calls everyone “sweetie” and gives air kisses in greeting and farewell. All that said, it was a nice gesture and even though we were all very uncomfortable she sets a heck of a canapé table. She supposedly made them all herself – musta been three hundred little bites of stuff on silver trays. Decorations perfect, spring flowers in silver vases.

May 29, 1999

[One night next week] I’m going to a flower arranging class at General N-.’s house. Mrs. N-. has enough flowers and ribbon for six “students.” I have a helluva sense of humor – and honestly, some interest in flower arranging. I have to say that Mrs. N-. does a very classy job of it, so it should be interesting if I can just take being called “sweetie” for two hours.

June 1, 1999

I was actually out for a couple of hours yesterday evening without the boys, at General N-.’s ribbon-tying and flower arranging workshop. Mrs. N-., formerly an Army nurse, went to a vocational school class on flower arranging. According to the General, she has done these workshops for twenty years now. Eight students, the N-.s’ daughter X-. (a freshman at a Seven Sisters college), and Mrs. N-. “viciously twisted” and “tightly pinched” ribbon for an hour, then “forcibly inserted” floral foam into containers, “sliced” greenery and flowers, and “jabbed” them into the foam for a second hour. We were just roaring at Mrs. N-.’s aggressive language – she’s about the most harmless, passive person you can imagine, but it sure seems that there’s some repressed hostility there!

Topping off the evening, for me, was Mrs. N-.’s attire. She’s one of those disgustingly always-thin people who still has a perfect wasp-waist and no facial lines at age fifty-something. She was dressed à la June Cleaver: still-black hair pulled back into a bun, starched white blouse and navy A-line skirt, topped off with a ruffly apron. But what an apron. Army camouflage cloth, ruffled, with standard Army name tapes over the pockets – “N-. N-.” on the right, “U. S. Army Wife” on the left! We learned the Simple Package Bow, the Standard Florist’s Bow, and the Basic Dinner Table Floral Arrangement. Move over, Martha Stewart! My floral arrangement is pretty sad-looking. I was gabbing with the general’s daughter about [the college she was attending and the city it was located in], and got last pick of the daisies and greenery and baby’s breath. I didn’t quite get the cottage-cheese container I was using covered by greenery, and my flowers are downright ratty. That’s okay. I like them anyway.

* * *

(Comment, 2015: I liked the general’s wife anyway, too. That apron? – not so much.)

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Writing Life – Call for Submissions, Upcoming Deadline

The response to our call for submissions to the Veterans Writing Project’s literary journal O-Dark-Thirty for a special themed issue, writing by women veterans, has been gratifying. We’ve received four or five times the usual number of submissions for a quarterly issue, and the quality of the ones I’ve read so far has been high. We’re excited to be able to publish some of the work, and we expect that the themed issue will be longer than usual.

We’re closing the window for submissions for the issue at midnight on October 31. This will give our editors time to read everything carefully before selecting work for both The Review, our quarterly print journal, and The Report, our core online publication.

Women veterans who write – if you haven’t yet submitted work, please consider doing so! Short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry submissions are welcome, and the work doesn’t need to be on a military subject. If you don’t make the deadline for the themed issue, don’t worry: we read submissions year-round and would welcome a chance to read your work at any time. Our complete submission guidelines and instructions are online.


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War, Leadership, and Love: The Contemporary Romance Novels of Army Officer Jessica Scott

Summer of 1976. I’m eleven years old, and I’ve just finished sixth grade. I’ve read everything that the librarian in charge of the little one-room public library in a small town in West Virginia thinks is suitable for a good little girl my age: Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Anne of Green Gables, all the Little House books, the unabridged version of Little Women, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Harriet the Spy, My Side of the Mountain. I’ve read every one of the Reader’s Digest abridged books on the shelf in my parents’ bedroom, and thanks to a series of diligent Sunday School teachers I’ve read all the best stories in the King James Bible. There is no bookstore within fifty miles. I’m bored: it’s too hot to play outside, my little sister’s being a brat, and there’s nothing in the house to read. Except….that stack of Mom’s “grownup books” piled up on top of the refrigerator, which I’m too short to reach.

Shanna-1This is why God made kitchen step stools and sent my mother to the grocery store. She’ll never miss one book for a few days. Not even this one, with the pretty Caribbean-themed cover: Shanna, by Kathleen Woodiwiss.

I became a romance novel junkie that week in 1976. The steamy, bodice-ripper sex was a real eye-opener (I had only the vaguest idea of procreational mechanics before I opened that cover). But what excited me more was the premise that a grown woman could violate some social norm for her gender (Woodiwiss’s heroine Shanna contrives a marriage of convenience with a prisoner to thwart her father’s plans to marry her “up” in society); that all sorts of fun and havoc would ensue as a result (prison break! secret trysts! false identities! daring escape on a pirate ship! murder! lots of hot jungle sex!); and that, at the end of the adventure, the wayward heroine would be rewarded rather than censured for her transgressive derring-do (the wealth of all the Americas! love and approval from her family and friends! hot jungle sex for the rest of her natural life! cute babies! a faithful and adoring mate!). The narrative of transgression, risk, and reward ratcheted my pre-adolescent dopamine levels up to breathtaking new heights.

True confession time: since 1976, romance novels have been my palate-cleansing literary sorbet. Especially now. I need a periodic happily-ever-after respite from the steady diet of veterans’ narratives and “literary fiction” that I consume during the week.

Last week, I ran across a link on the War, Literature & the Arts Facebook page to Albeit Journal, a scholarly publication that recently produced an issue about women at war. In their contribution “In Sickness and in Heath: Representations of PTSD in post-9/11 Romance Novels,” Stacy Holden and Charity Tabol discuss some contemporary romance novels and their (civilian) authors’ depictions of PTSD. The gist of the article was that romance novelists are getting it wrong – they misrepresent the signs and symptoms, and suggest that PTSD can be “cured” with a generous application of True Love.

I had to wonder if Holden and Tabol ever read romance novels for pleasure, or if they had to close their eyes and think of England to make it through the novels they read for their article. While I can’t speak for everyone, I suspect that most women who enjoy romance novels understand that they’re adult fairy tales. Entertainment. Escape. Readers aren’t actually expecting to ensnare an elegant duke during a quadrille, dash across the Highlands on horseback with a kilted laird, sail the seven seas with a pirate captain who has no body odor and a full set of pearly white teeth, be rescued by a Navy SEAL from a cave guarded by rabid militants deep in the wilds of Trashcanistan, or – God forbid – to “cure” a veteran’s PTSD with True Love’s First Kiss. And even the most well-written of the sex scenes are…fiction. A guy who’s a sufficiently considerate and capable lover to elicit the 12031Big O on a first date with a single finger, who can perform umpteen times in one night and make the fifth time feel as good as the first, and who never farts in bed and fluffs the covers? When he does exist, he’s the guy who will want to wear your nail polish and lingerie the next week. Or he’ll suddenly turn into the knife-wielding Vietnam vet from Looking for Mr. Goodbar – the next book I read from Mom’s forbidden pile on the refrigerator.

Anyway, Holden and Tabol’s more respectful reference to the romance novels of Army officer Jessica Scott got my attention. On Friday evening I downloaded Homefront to my Kindle. On Sunday evening, six novels and a novella later, there was no food left in the house, the weekend chores remained untouched, and I had no idea if the boys had even started their homework.

Scott’s Coming Home and Homefront series defy some of the conventions of the romance genre. Her novels aren’t set in exotic foreign countries or idyllic landscapes; they’re mostly set in garrison at Fort Hood, Texas, where the only attractive views seem to be out at the Belton Dam or on the lakeside deck of a (fictional?) restaurant, Talarico’s. One book takes place in Colorado Springs and another in Maine, both during unpleasantly cold winter conditions. Exciting things happen on the range and in the shoot house at Fort Hood – and on the floor of a latrine somewhere in Iraq, where a sergeant first class lies struggling with alcoholic detox. Oh: and in beds, against doors, on waist-height pieces of furniture, and in offices at the Headquarters building, of course. (I was just a little disappointed that in garrison, there were so many comfortable venues for adult activity that none the characters ever had to resort to rocking the shocks in a Humvee.)

Scott’s heroes and heroines, primarily company-grade officers and sergeants first class (with an occasional field-grade officer or civilian spouse), are assigned to the First Cavalry Division or to support units at Fort Hood. They’re all hot and fit, in accordance with the conventions of the romance genre and Army regulations: nobody’s on the Fat Boy Program. But they’re not wealthy, like the characters in many other romance novels. Everybody’s taking Uncle Sam’s nickel. Nobody’s a trust fund baby slumming in the armed forces. There’s very little attention given to clothing, another digression from the conventions of the romance genre. Nobody looks stylish in gray ACU’s: they’ll never go out of fashion because they’ve never been in fashion in the first place. The First StetsonCavalry Stetson is a tradition with serious history. The Combat Action Badge is a symbol of shared hardship, not a fashion accessory. Scott only delves deep into the world of military clothing in All for You, when Army psychologist Emily Lindberg puts together her Inceptor body armor like the heroine of a Regency romance prepares her train and plumes for her presentation to Queen Charlotte at court.

By the standards of the romance genre, Scott’s protagonists are unusually and pleasingly complex, flawed, and interesting. Depression disables a captain after her deployment. A lieutenant just wants to train his men for the next deployment, but he struggles with fear of cowardice and of becoming like his father. A tough-guy captain is bullied by his widowed mother, an influential Army colonel who can’t keep her fingers out of his career. One sergeant first class is an alcoholic who wanders in and out of recovery. Another blames herself for her husband’s suicide. A widowed lieutenant whose husband was killed in Iraq juggles single motherhood and the demands of a bitchy female major who holds women to higher standards than men, makes inappropriate remarks about other women, and gets away with it because the men she works with write her behavior off as a “female problem.” The major tells LT Anders that single mothers don’t belong:

“Sarah, the Army isn’t meant for officers who are single mothers. You simply cannot give the same as an officer who has no children or who has a wife at home to take care of these things.”

Sarah forced herself to speak. To regain some shred of dignity and not just sit there, mute and powerless.

“Ma’am, I’ve done everything the Army has ever asked of me. Willingly and with everything I am.” Sarah choked out the words. Her throat was tight and her lungs burned from not getting enough air.

She would not cry in front of this woman.

“Then maybe you should readjust your priorities. Clearly if you’ve been devoting everything to the Army, your child is suffering.”

And later:

“Your mere presence in the Army offends me. You take time off when others have to work. You leave work early when your peers are here late. You play the female card when it’s convenient for you, and then you insist you just wanted to be treated equally. I don’t play your games, captain. You will be held to the same standard as everyone else. Fairly, without regard to your status as mother.”

This characterization and dialogue may seem over the top, but it isn’t. I heard the same sentiments from both men and women in the Navy, put just that bluntly, many times when I was on active duty.

My favorite heroine in the six novels and one novella that I read was the feisty, no-nonsense Sergeant First Class Holly Washington of Forged in Fire: a realistic (if idealized) first sergeant, she’s rough, tough, doesn’t take any shit off anybody, happily rushes into fistfights, outruns most of the men in her formation one morning, and spends most of her time taking ass-chewings for the team, caring for her soldiers in every possible way, teaching junior officers how to tell their asses from their elbows, and modeling real leadership for them. Scott is at her best in creating dialogue for SFC Washington. Here, Washington tells her future lover, whom she thinks of as “Captain Cranky Pants,” how it’s going to be:

“Look, sir, you can have a problem with me or not; I don’t really give a rat’s ass. But we’ve got to work together for the next year or so unless one of us gets fired, so I’d just as soon you get over whatever moral objection you’ve got to smartass females and I’ll try to get over your crusty ‘anything that isn’t shooting motherfuckers in the face is a waste of time’ attitude. Deal?”

Later, she takes down another first sergeant who has come to her to complain about one of her subordinates:

“Your Sergeant Freeman is apparently stringing along both Pizarro and Baggins,” Delgado said.

Holly braced her hips against her desk, watching the other first sergeant carefully. His tone was…sandpapery at best. “Well isn’t that a lovely little dead bird to drop into the middle of the office like it’s some kind of prize. Did you kill it yourself?”

Delgado shook his head and mirrored her stance, ignoring Captain Reheres completely. “I’m not amused, First Sergeant.”

“Neither am I,” she said. “You come in here like you own the place, scare the piss out of my commander, and then act like we’re supposed to fall all over ourselves at your genius pronouncement. So unless you’ve got proof that our NCO is sleeping with either of your men – and oh by the way, nothing you’ve said is much beyond contrary to good order and discipline – then get the hell out of my office and take your shitty attitude with you.”

Delgado’s mouth actually dropped open. For a moment he looked stunned, then his expression shifted back to full asshole. “So you’re not going to do anything?”

“Nothing much to do at this point, First Sarn’t,” Holly said.

Delgado turned to Captain Reheres. “You need to get your NCOs in line,” he snapped. “They’re distracting my men from preparing for their deployment. I don’t need them fighting over the females.”

Holly tapped her finger to her top lip. “See, here’s the problem with your logic, First Sergeant. You seem to forget that your men should be perfectly capable of restraining themselves. If they’re walking hard-ons, it’s because they choose not to be fucking responsible for their own actions. Don’t blame the females for your men’s inability to control their dicks.”

She was reasonably certain there was smoke coming out of Delgado’s ears. Good. The fucker.

“If your females weren’t cockteases, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

Holly bristled but kept her voice level. Screaming at this mouth breathing Neanderthal wasn’t going to accomplish a damn thing. “You’re right. Your men would be doing this with civilian women who we could ignore, right? But because they’re doing all this chest beating macho bullshit with another soldier, we’ve actually got to deal with it, don’t we?”

“Don’t give me any of that feminist bullshit. Keep your NCOs under control,” Delgado snapped.

“Sure. I’ll just go sign for some burkhas while we’re at it. Do you think they have them at CIF? I can get that along with their body armor?” Any chance of a working relationship with Delgado was about to be burned to the ground and she was too pissed off to care. “Go fuck yourself, First Sergeant. Get the hell out of my ops office.”

Delgado looked like he wanted to snap. “All this feel good female bullshit is going to get my men killed.”

“Keep telling yourself that.”

Scott’s portrayals of civilian spouses and junior enlisted personnel are more stereotypical. Melanie, the ex-wife of SFC Gale Sorren in Homefront, divorced her husband when he repeatedly chose his Army career over the needs of their family. But she has never really fallen out of love with him. The wife of Sergeant Kearney in After the War is an unfaithful, chain-smoking troublemaker who aims to “trade up” her enlisted spouse for an officer, and who educates Lieutenant Sarah Anders on creative alternatives to monogamy during an Article 15 investigation:

Sarah made a note on the paper. “How did you and LT Smith meet?”

“Nate brought him home one night for a soft swap. Him and his wife.”

“Is that for drinks or something?”

Mrs. Kearney looked at her like she’d grown two heads. “We were trading partners for the night. Just trying each other out to see if we’d want to go further.”

Scott’s novels also push the boundaries of the “happily ever after” ending in which the hero and heroine celebrate their love with marriage. The happy couples in All for You and Forged in Fire are fraternizing – in the former he’s a sergeant first class and she’s a captain, and in the latter she’s a sergeant first class and he’s a lieutenant – so while their chains of command are aware of the relationship and decline to initiate UCMJ disciplinary procedures, neither couple makes plans to marry in the novels’ final pages.

What interested me the most in the novels I read were the issues that Scott used to give her characters internal and external conflict. She tackles a range of real and serious issues that would be familiar to many soldiers going back and forth between garrison and multiple deployments: the challenges of single parenting, combat skills training versus administrative and medical readiness, the effect of multiple deployments on children, officer and NCO leadership, marital infidelity, domestic violence, designer drug and painkiller abuse, alcoholism, suicide, PTSD, depression, fraternization, and especially the effects of corruption and favoritism. Her officers and first sergeants, good and bad, often overlook their soldiers’ most serious struggles – addiction, suicidal ideation, PTSD, domestic violence. They do it because the soldiers Scott describes are skilled in combat and will be needed on the next deployment; because their chain of command believes that the Army owes them allegiance in exchange for their prior combat experience and should cut them some slack; because the officers’ and NCOs’ leadership is just weak; or because, as LT Bello tells SFC Washington: “We’re going to war with the Army we have. We’ve got to make the best of it.” The one contemporary issue she doesn’t touch in the novels I read is military sexual trauma. That’s probably for the best: for at least two decades, romance novelists have been writing savvy, modern heroines who exercise sexual agency and are uninhibited lovers. Contemporary romance writers work hard to demonstrate that romantic fiction no longer depicts the “rape fantasies” and the coercive sex found in early bodice-ripper novels. Portrayal of military sexual trauma in a contemporary romance novel, while not impossible, would challenge the happily-ever-after ending and require an extremely deft touch.

Romance novels are written predominantly by women, for an audience of other women. Scott’s choice to use the contemporary romance genre to portray serious military issues in the wake of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan means that no matter how interesting or realistic her characters, no matter how significant the conflicts she chooses for them to wrestle with, few men are going to read her books or consider the themes she’s writing in a serious way as a result of having read them. That’s too bad. Regardless of whether or not she’s attempting to create “art” in the sense understood by aficionados of literary fiction, she’s writing from lived experience of the Army and translating some of her experience of wartime military service and the issues that concern her most onto the page into fiction. There is honesty, candor, and more than a grain of truth in her romance novels.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that  some of the most powerful stories about women and military service that I’ve read recently were contemporary romance novels. They address social transgression, risk, and reward – just like military service itself does for women. And women will say things to other women that most of us wouldn’t say to men. We speak more honestly and candidly with each other. Writer Rebecca Solnit has pointed out that when women attempt to tell their stories they often experience three “concentric circles” of being silenced: they must first overcome internal inhibitions of self-doubt, shame, and fear of punishment; then, if they attempt to speak, they may be humiliated, bullied, or subjected to violence; and finally, if they manage to speak, both tale and teller may be discredited. One of the ways for women to break the silence safely is to write our stories as fiction; another is to speak only to a receptive audience – in this case, other women.

In the end, Scott’s novels may be too “military” in both style and content to appeal to some civilian romance readers. Her characters swear frequently and realistically, and they use some military jargon and the occasional acronym. Some of the internal and external conflicts that they face – especially those involving military leadership and training – may seem too esoteric. Judging by my husband’s reaction when he has peeked into my collection of romance novels, the way Scott (or any romance writer) portrays sexual intimacy is going to weird some men out. But military women who enjoy romance are likely to be great fans of Scott’s books. And all readers looking for a glimpse into the experiences and concerns of women in uniform should definitely check these novels out. When I want to read entertaining fiction about men and women who take risks, transgress social boundaries, care about the things I cared about when I was on active duty, and are rewarded for their efforts with love and community, I’ll choose a Jessica Scott romance.

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Writing Life: I Want to Smack Sam Sacks

This post is mostly not about the writing of women veterans; please forgive the digression.

In 2005, a couple of weeks into my first semester of the Writing Program at the Johns Hopkins University, my mother-in-law asked to read some of my work. I was in the mandatory basic craft class that semester; at that point we’d only written short exercises from writing prompts. No complete stories. I hadn’t yet learned never to let family members read my work-in-progress; I gave her my favorite piece, a short narrative involving a man in a barn that demonstrated the connection between setting and mood. When she finished reading it, she delivered a twenty-minute critique: this word choice was wrong; that image lacked clarity; a reader would be bored by the end of the first paragraph because there was too much description. Of course, she was just trying to help.

“Well, Judy,” I said when she finished, “it sounds like you can probably write a better barn than I can. So why don’t you write your own damn barn?”

When I read Sam Sacks’ essay “First-Person Shooters: What’s Missing in Contemporary War Fiction,” in the August 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine, I thought Sacks, why don’t you just write your own damn war novel?

Sacks’s essay is a discussion of six contemporary novels and short story collections about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve read four of the six (Powers, Gallagher & Scranton, Klay, and Pitre), but my take on them differed radically from Sacks’s. I went back and re-read the stories in Fire and Forget so I could share some specifics.

His first criticism of contemporary war fiction by veterans is that it’s all alike – the stories “view the war from the narrow perspectives of individual combatants who lack any understanding of the political and ideological context of their stories.” Most contemporary stories are told from the perspectives of individuals; that’s not unique to war fiction. It’s the best way for any writer to create an empathic bond with readers, to help the reader identify with the story’s characters. Contemporary writers in all genres of modern literary and commercial fiction draw readers in through what Allison K. Williams calls “drama in the moment” – the impact of “drama of situation” on specific individuals. In “Don’t Be Brave” she explains the difference between “drama of situation” and “drama in the moment”: “The Holocaust is drama of situation. It was terrible, sane people agree. The Diary of Anne Frank is about a group of people who don’t like each other very much trying to live in a small space, plus something horrible outside makes them keep doing it.” Some people want to read histories of the Holocaust; other readers prefer the narrative of Anne Frank. We don’t read The Iliad for insight into the politics and ideology of Athens and Troy; we want to spend time with with Paris, Helen, Achilles, and Hector. Tolstoy’s philosophical ramblings in War and Peace are made relevant through the stories of Pierre Bezukhov, Elena Kuragina, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, and sweet Natalya Rostova. The authors of contemporary war fiction give readers a palatable dose of politics and ideology through realistic and engaging depictions of individual soldiers, lieutenants, Iraqis, and Afghans. I’ll get to a few examples below.

Sacks’s second assertion is that veterans who write “are telling the same kind of war story” over and over because their stories and novels are the product of the M.F.A. workshop culture. He seems to have come to this conclusion after reading Eric Bennett’s novel A Big Enough Lie, “the first satirical treatment of contemporary war fiction and the classroom politics that produce it.” He adds, “As with most polemics against M.F.A. culture, they carry a whiff of personal grievance that helps animate the critique.” He then goes on to devote four and a half columns – almost two pages – of his essay to his own anti-M.F.A. polemic. This section troubled me deeply.

I wondered why Sacks seems to think that “classroom politics” produced the work of any of the veteran writers I know or whose work I have read. It is inaccurate and ungenerous to portray them as the black-hearted Halliburton contractors of the literary world. Many – perhaps most – of the authors who submit work to O-Dark-Thirty are years or even decades from their last classroom experience. Many have never taken a class in creative writing. I’ve also met some of the authors of the books Sacks mentions. None were cynically trying to use their military experiences to stand out in the overcrowded ranks of M.F.A. grad students or emerging writers. They’re sweet, slightly nerdy guys who turned to writing from the impulse to make art from life-changing experiences of military service and war. Tinkerers in words, pitting the forces of creation against the forces of destruction on a blank page just to see what new thing might emerge. They’re writing what seems to them to be true.

I had a stronger negative reaction to Sacks’s claim that the contemporary war narrative is one of individual trauma and bewilderment that reduces soldiers to pitiable, infantilized caricatures. His comments about traumatized veterans and veterans’ writing programs pissed me off so badly that I drafted a letter to the editors of Harper’s Magazine:

“Sam Sacks correctly observes that writing workshops for veterans have proliferated across the country. However, his assessment of the aims of the workshops and the relationship between therapeutic writing and literary writing is incorrect.

“While many veterans have found that telling their stories can be therapeutic, most veterans’ writing organizations are focused on helping veterans create literary work. Words After War, based in New York City, aims to build a literary community and to create a more open and informed veteran-civilian dialogue. Military Experience and the Arts helps veterans ready their work for publication and offers workshops on arts and healing. Instructors with the Veterans Writing Project give veterans the tools to tell their stories effectively. They also helped create an expressive writing program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that is implemented by trained, professional therapists.

“The stories told in contemporary war fiction in no way resemble the products of expressive writing. Furthermore, Sacks’ inference that veterans’ therapeutic writing is ‘pitiable’ or would generate ‘a condescending kind of sympathy but rarely any respect’ demeans the participants in veterans’ writing workshops. They are not ‘bewildered, ineffectual, cynical, destructive, incapable of distinguishing between civilians and the enemy, and intensely preoccupied with their own sense of victimhood.’ 

“While Sacks clearly intended to make a point about his perception of the tone of contemporary war fiction, tying that point to veterans’ writing organizations and to veterans’ therapeutic or expressive writing was condescending and disrespectful.” 

Ron Capps, David Ervin of Military Experience and the Arts, and Brandon Willitts of Words After War all kindly read early drafts of the letter and made helpful suggestions for revision. (Friends don’t let friends write pissed off. Love those guys.) Ron also asked me what I thought the letter would accomplish. Since I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer, I didn’t send the letter.

Sacks’s final assertion is that veterans who write should be addressing “big questions” about politics and ideology: “Why did we fight these wars, and what were we trying to achieve? Did we succeed or did we fail? What consequences have we wrought on the countries we attacked? What, if anything, have we learned? Questions like these rarely come up in recent war fiction, because they lie outside the scope of personal redemption, beyond the veteran’s expected journey from trauma to recovery,” he says.

I read plenty of political and ideological context and thoughts about the Big Questions in the stories in Fire and Forget. As Colum McCann pointed out in the foreword to the anthology, “Writing fiction is necessarily a political act. And writing war fiction, during a time of war, by veterans of the conflicts we are still fighting, is a fervent, and occasionally anguished, political act.”            Here are a few of my favorite examples of politics and ideology from the stories in Fire and Forget.

The narrator of Ted Janis’s story “Raid” alludes to his perspective on the ideology that led America into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

“Bin Laden was fish food, but we were still chasing targets, hunting down low-level pipe swingers in the name of GWOT, an acronym and a concept that belonged to last decade. Two deployments ago, I drank the Kool-Aid—drank it like it was the blood of Christ.”

The narrator, and by implication the majority of the American public, swallowed the Bush administration’s explanation of the War on Terror with the same unquestioning belief and uncritical compliance as the members of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple who obediently drank cyanide-laced bug juice. Later, the narrator tells the unit’s interpreter, Omar: “I re-upped back when I believed. These days we create more insurgents than we kill.”

In his story “Television,” Roman Skawskiw embeds ideology and politics in an image – a brief description of an item a character wears. If you aren’t familiar with the connotations of the item to soldiers, it’s easy to overlook the meaning. Sergeant Alphabet, one of Lieutenant Sugar’s squad leaders, has shot a boy whom he believed to be threatening a squad on patrol. The lieutenant is ordered to visit the boy’s family to explain and apologize for the sergeant’s actions. He thinks:

“It’s a tragedy, this thing, sure, but my duty is to make the Iraqis understand that we’ve come to help them with freedom, and honor, and duty. Courage, Sugar thought. A little plastic dog tag printed with the Army values dangled from Sugar’s neck, beside the stainless steel ones bearing his name, social, blood type, and religion.”

Sugar’s little plastic dog tag imprinted with the Army core values is a clear sign to his soldiers that he’s a doofus: incompetent, a poor leader, not worthy of respect. He can’t even remember the basics without a cheat sheet. The Army core values printed on Lieutenant Sugar’s dog tag are a metaphor for the American values we expected Iraqi citizens and leaders to embrace regardless of their own values and goals for their country. In the hands of incompetent leaders, Skawskiw suggests, both the Army’s values and America’s are useless – abstract concepts printed on cheap plastic.

Sugar’s visit to the bereaved Iraqi family begins to disillusion him, however. He thinks, “Sometimes you’re handed a piece of shit and the best you can do is put a ribbon on it and pretend it smells like roses.” This can also be interpreted as a comment on the War on Terror. The American armed forces were handed a piece of shit in Iraq and Afghanistan; they did their best to wrap it with a pretty bow, and pretended not to notice the stink.

My favorite expression of politics and ideology in Fire and Forget comes from Perry O’Brien’s satirical story “Poughkeepsie.” The narrator, who is AWOL, sits on the sidewalk in front of the Port Authority considering a visit to a girl he met through “Any Soldier” mail and corresponded with. Charlotte is a college student in Poughkeepsie – perhaps at

The Thompson Library at Vassar College. Author's photo.

The Thompson Library at Vassar College. Author’s photo.

Vassar, where the Thompson Library looks very much like the castle the narrator imagines. Charlotte had written that rabbits were destroying the college landscaping; he begins to fantasize about a “shock and awe” campaign against them. Then, he thinks, after nearly destroying them he’ll make the remaining rabbits a peace offer. Tell them they could do more with their lives. Train them in tactics, help them dig tunnels under the foundations of the college buildings. On graduation day, he finally decides, they’ll take the college, leave the campus a smoking heap of rubble, and send Charlotte running. When she asks him why, he will say that he needed something to do. He will become King of the Rabbits for a short time, and then the rabbits will turn on him and chase him back to his homeland. The fantasy is a satirical extended metaphor for the American actions in Iraq. The entire story could even be read as an allegory, with Charlotte in the role of Saddam Hussein, the rabbits as the Iraqi people, and the narrator as the U.S. Army.

If allusion, image, extended metaphor, and allegory seem like convoluted and overdone ways to make points about the political and ideological context of the wars, readers of Fire and Forget can find it simple and straightforward in this passage of pidgin-English dialogue between the narrator of Roy Scranton’s story “Red Steel India” and two members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps:

“You like America?” I asked them.
“Ameriki?” the younger one said.
“Yeah. America good?”
“Yes, Ameriki good,” he beamed.
“Michael Jackson good?”
“Yes yes, Michael Jackson.
Ee-hee. Very good.”
“You like Bush? Bush good?”
“Boosh good, yes.”
“How ’bout Saddam? You like Saddam?”
“Saddam no good. Saddam Ali Baba
[a thief],” the older one said, stamping his foot and spitting.
“You shi’a?”
“Ayatollah Sistani good?”
He shrugged.
“Moqtada al-Sadr good?”
“Al-Sadr very good,” the young one said. The older one shrugged.
“Shi’a?” I pointed at the young one.
“Nam. Shi’a,” he pointed at himself.
“Bush good, no Saddam?”
“Saddam no good.”
“Bush no good,” I said. “Bush Ali Baba.”
“No!” the older one said, aghast.
“Saddam, Bush, same-same,” I said. “Ali Baba, Ali Baba.”
“No, Boosh good,” the young one said.
I shrugged. “Ali Baba.”

Veteran writers also depict the consequences of the wars for both the soldiers who fought and the Iraqi and Afghan civilians who suffer. In her story “The Train,” in Fire and Forget, Mariette Kalinowski graphically shows the deaths of a fellow female soldier and a young Iraqi girl; the recurring trauma that her protagonist struggles with may be “expected,” but the journey does not end with recovery. (Despite Sacks’s brief aside about women veterans, some of us are also writing fiction. The exercise I described above became “Memorial Day,” my first published story, four years after my mother-in-law’s death. It’s not about women veterans, and it’s not in the same league as the work Sacks is reviewing; but it was about my own experience of war – the best attempt I could make at that time to wrestle with politics, ideology, and my own feelings about spending three and a half years on thirty-day standby to deploy to fight in wars I considered immoral and unjust.) In the end, the consequences of politics, ideology, and war can best be understood in fiction through depictions of the impact of war on individuals.

Sacks seems to believe that veterans who write fiction are failing to hold educated, liberal America accountable for its political and moral failures in the War on Terror through their stories. Having been a career naval officer, I see the responsibility chain differently. In the Navy, the captain of the ship takes the ultimate responsibility for everything that happens on board, and demands accountability from every sailor in the ship’s company. But that’s only half of the equation. Every sailor must also accept responsibility for his or her personal failures. There can be no redemption for a sailor who has screwed up without an acceptance of responsibility.

The writers of contemporary war literature are demanding accountability. Colum McCann says in his foreword to Fire and Forget that “It is the job of literature to confront the terrible truths of what war has done and continues to do to us,” and veterans who write are doing that. They’re not only showing the impact of the wars on individual soldiers and the citizens of the countries to which they deployed. They’re also holding up a mirror to the American public. When the narrator of “Smile, There Are IED’s Everywhere” says that the bartender had “earned the weathered ‘We support the troops!’ sticker pasted to the wall,” that’s also a statement about Americans who gave lip service but no meaningful support during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In “Play the Game,” Colby Buzzell paints portraits of all sorts of well-meaning Americans who proudly display their ignorance of the recent wars: store managers, police officers, even veterans of earlier wars.

Sacks could write his own war novel: perhaps something in the omniscient point of view, a narrative in which characters ponder the “big questions” and demand that readers be held accountable for America’s political and moral failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m skeptical that such a novel would be a commercial or critical success. And I’m certain that no matter how many stories veterans – and civilians – tell about the wars, no matter the narratives’ emotional resonance or power, America will not be accountable for our political and moral failures in Iraq and Afghanistan until there is public acknowledgement and acceptance of the responsibility and complicity. There can be no redemption for America until the second part of the responsibility equation is complete. So if America’s educated liberal reading elite is ducking and covering, that’s on them. It’s a choice. By suggesting that contemporary war fiction is deeply flawed, and by placing blame and responsibility for America’s lack of accountability on the heads of the veterans who write it, Sacks offers the audience of Harper’s Magazine one more avenue of escape, further enabling the search for unearned redemption.

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