MY HIGH SCHOOL class president was an impressive person. Intelligent, dedicated, quietly intense, amiable but not too charming, the kind of student admired by peers and teachers alike. When we graduated, I — like many of my lucky classmates — went to a private university; our class president went to West Point. This was a somewhat remarkable choice for someone from our Boston suburb. Also somewhat remarkable: our class president was a woman. I remember how my 18-year-old-brain wrestled with the significance of her decision. On the one hand, wasn’t she as fit to serve as any man? On the other hand, I wondered if military service might mean something different for women — if they experienced combat, or training, or homecoming, differently than men.
I asked these questions knowing that that I was entirely unfit to serve: I was cautious, cried easily, and had an innate aversion to violence that would soon become an ethical stance. But I couldn’t decide if these qualities were linked to my gender, in any meaningful way. Surely there were women tougher than I — were they more masculine, or were they more equal to men? I presumed that these women were more suited to military service, but I also thought that they were less likely to be understood by those who pictured women as nurturing homemakers, maternal figures who shouldn’t stray from safety.
These were the ruminations of a high school senior, someone who had yet to read Gender Trouble or to meet a drag queen. Deciding how to be a woman seemed complicated enough; I could only imagine how much more complicated military service might make it.
Just what does military service mean for women? This is the question Cara Hoffman poses in Be Safe I Love You (2014), the story of a female combat veteran’s difficult return to her home in upstate New York. It’s Christmastime in Watertown, a close-knit rural community, and Lauren Clay is back from Iraq, much to the delight of her family and friends. Lauren herself is less delighted: her gentle father infantilizes her, her bookish ex-boyfriend strikes her as weak, and her little brother is insubordinate. “She’d come home to a world of fragile baby animals,” she fumes inwardly. “Soft inarticulate wide-eyed morons with know-nothing epiphanies and none of them — not one of them — did what she said, which was beginning to grate on her, cut to the heart of how wrong things were.” Lauren decides to right things by tricking her brother, Danny, into accompanying her on a foolhardy midwinter camping expedition. The trip is designed to whip Danny into shape and to exorcise the demons that have followed Lauren back from the desert. What at first looks like a therapeutic working-through starts to seem like evidence of a psychotic break, and Lauren soon finds herself battling the winds and snow of a Canadian winter. Nature can be deadlier than an enemy army.
This rocky transition home is not unique to women. We learn early in the novel that Lauren avoided some of the major problems affecting other female soldiers. “She had not been sexually assaulted or gotten pregnant on her tour,” the army psychiatrist carefully notes. At the same time, Hoffman acknowledges the specificity of female experience, crafting a set of interlocking images of pregnancy and childrearing, and asking how combat changes a woman’s relationship to these facets of femininity. In this way, Hoffman continues a project she began in her first novel, So Much Pretty, a loose murder mystery that probes the relationship between gender and violence. In So Much Pretty, the author suggests, powerfully, that the novel’s central crimes, kidnapping and rape, might be better considered acts of war, punishable by death.
As in that debut, Hoffman is at her most effective when tracing how economic inequality, environmental degradation, and intimate violence converge. In So Much Pretty, she showed how the moral idealism of homesteaders and do-gooders wavers in the face of rural poverty; in Be Safe I Love You, she uses poverty to address the moral confusion of war. Lauren is a hero not because of her service — which mostly happens offstage — but because of what her service brought to her broken family: financial security. “I didn’t get drafted,” she tells her father, in a moment of rage,
I enlisted. I was educated. I had people under my command. And just like you … JUST like YOU I am a beneficiary of this war. […] We got paid. YOU got paid. Motherfucking Freddie Mac and Chase got paid. If you never make another dime I’ve still saved enough to put Danny through state school and pay his rent until he graduates.
Lauren frames her service as something freely chosen, but Hoffman also shows us how a choice made in the midst of acute poverty is, in some way, no choice at all.
The reference to the draft is an important one. Lauren wants to distinguish herself from the Vietnam veterans who populate Watertown, just as Hoffman wants to differentiate her novel from the mostly white, mostly male, post-Vietnam war narratives that have come to stand, in our society, for the American soldier’s experience. American women have served their country in various capacities for centuries — as nurses and as code-breakers, at home and abroad, in combat and in combat’s aftermath — and yet, their stories have been largely absent from cultural representations of war. “Male soldiers’ experiences make up the foundation of art and literature,” Hoffman wrote in a recent op-ed for The New York Times. “From ‘The Odyssey’ to ‘The Things They Carried,’ the heroic or tragic protagonist’s face is familiar, timeless and, without exception, male.”
Hoffman, from a military family herself, may be painting with too broad a brush. G. I. Jane and Zero Dark Thirty centered on female military personnel, while Showtime’s The L Word gave us Tasha Williams (played by Rose Rollins), a closeted, taciturn soldier who suffered from flashbacks. Even The Things They Carried contains “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” a strange, haunting story about one woman’s transformation from girl-next-door into Green Beret. And Kayla Maureen Williams, author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female In The U.S. Army, responded to Hoffman’s op-ed with a post on her blog listing many women in the military whose fiction and nonfiction have been published in recent years. But Hoffman is right to ask how fiction can better reflect what she calls an “unprecedented cultural shift” in the nation’s armed forces.
Be Safe I Love You doesn’t always reflect this cultural shift as clearly as it could. Combat scenes are cloudy, more atmosphere than action. Take this flashback, for example:
A mirror bursting into sand and dust, the fear traveled and imbedded itself, hid in everyday objects, blinded people, muffled or enhanced sounds. She was either never or always afraid about that time. Never and always are separated by a wasp’s waist, a small sliver of safety glass, one bead of sweat; separated by the seven seconds it takes to exhale the air from your lungs, to make your body as still as the corpse you are about to create.
The prose is evocative — one certainly sense both heat and fear — but inexact; it’s hard to imagine who or what populates this desert. The novel’s central traumatic event is also a bit difficult to follow; I had to read the scene several times in order to grasp what happened. By contrast, Hoffman’s representation of Lauren’s PTSD is a bit too exacting: “The significance of nightmares was not lost on Lauren; she knew all about the scenes that repeat themselves, the feelings of ‘hypervigilance.’” Moments like these are closer to symptomatology than imaginative writing. But elsewhere, Hoffman demonstrates a deep understanding of character psychology, a knack for describing the natural world, and a keen ear for the weird rhythms of sibling banter. Danny and Lauren riff on each others’ jokes and insults like a pair of improv comics; their repartee is a delight.
The brother-sister relationship, so finely drawn, is the heart of the novel. Danny’s emails to Lauren juxtapose wry in-jokes (“Sebastian anti-froze to death”) and honest sentiment (“Be safe, I love you”), a mixture that often characterizes adolescent brotherly love. This sibling bond substitutes for romantic intimacy and maternal nurturing, two experiences that seem increasingly unavailable to a woman like Lauren. In the novel’s final scene, Lauren has moved on to pursue her creative passion in a major city. She’s traded in her fatigues for a dress and heels, but it’s not clear which other trappings of traditional womanhood she plans to assume. Her hesitancy may not be a bad thing: Lauren’s experience in war, damaging as it was, also freed her from certain expectations about what a woman can do or should be. The kind of woman she will be is up to her.
We live in a world in which gender — assigned, performed, interpreted — still shapes experience. The choices made by female veterans can generate productive questions, not just about gender equality, but also about how we understand gender itself. Hoffman’s novel thoughtfully reminds us to look at gender, in all of its flexibility and complexity, and in some of the places where we often fail to glance.