ON MARCH 31 of this year, war veteran and novelist Cara Hoffman published an op-ed in The New York Times in which she argued that war narratives — in prose, poetry, and film — have always been, and continue to be, dominated by male voices. From the Greek classics to modern story collections, Hoffman wrote, these tales focus exclusively on the male experience of battle, and of return; the stories of women at war, on the other hand, are “nearly absent from our culture.”
Shortly thereafter, Kayla Williams — a former sergeant and Arabic linguist in a Military Intelligence company of the 101st Airborne Division, and author of two memoirs about her experiences as a servicewoman at home and abroad — published an eloquent dissent to Hoffman’s piece on her personal blog. Invited by the Los Angeles Review of Books to expand on this post, she graciously shared the following.
Less than one percent of the US population has joined the military during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some 12 percent served during World War II, almost 10 percent in Vietnam. As those cohorts have decreased, the overall number of veterans has been shrinking. Women, however, are the fastest-growing segment of the veteran population. As restrictions limiting their roles have slowly been lifted, women have served at unprecedented rates in recent years, in positions from piloting aircraft to manning machine guns in combat.
Public recognition of our honorable wartime service has not grown as swiftly as our numbers and opportunities: without the close-cropped haircut our male peers sport by regulation, we are less likely to be easily identifiable out of uniform, and military women are too often portrayed in the media as victims rather than heroes. Now, however, women are telling their stories, adding to the tales of war and homecoming that men have been recording from the Odyssey and Iliad on. Works have been published by women veterans from all four branches of service, officers and enlisted, active duty and reservists, and from multiple ethnic backgrounds. Their diverse voices can significantly deepen our understanding of both who volunteers to serve in today’s military and what they experience. A selection:
I’m Still Standing,by former soldier Shoshana Johnson, tells the story of her experience as the first African-American woman held as prisoner of war. Her story of serving in combat and being wounded and the courageous story of her captivity, rescue, and homecoming are inspirational.
Dr. Heidi Squier Kraft writes of her experience as a Naval officer working in a combat hospital as a clinical psychologist in Rule Number Two. She provides a powerful account of the trauma war inflicts not only on those fighting, but also on those attempting to care for them. “There are two rules of war,” she writes. “Rule number one is that young men die. Rule number two is that doctors can’t change rule number one.”
Hesitation Kills by Jane Blair details her experience as a female Marine officer in Iraq. The Marine Corps is the smallest branch of service and contains the lowest percentage of women; enlisted personnel vastly outnumber officers — women Marine officers are thus thrice rare. Blair’s relatively deep understanding of the Middle East enriches her story of the initial invasion of Iraq.
Former Air Force Colonel Kim Olson tells her story of working in the early days of the reconstruction inIraq and Back, offering a high-level insider’s perspective of US efforts to rebuild infrastructure while providing humanitarian aid and establishing a democracy — as the insurgency began to take root.
Shade It Black by Jess Goodell tells her story of serving in a Marine Mortuary Affairs unit in Iraq, tasked with recovering and processing the remains of fallen troops. She then explores the difficulties of transitioning back to civilian existence and wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder in a country that has been largely shielded from the images of our war dead.
Michelle Wilmot’s novel Quixote in Ramadiis a darkly humorous, fictionalized account of a Native American female soldier deployed to Iraq who faces not only enemy action but also ethnic, religious, and gender discrimination within the military.
Warrior Princess is the story of US Navy SEAL Kristin Beck’s journey to coming out as a transgendered woman. Although Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (the law barring openly gay servicemembers from serving) has been repealed, that change did not extend to transgendered personnel. Beck radically reshapes preconceived notions of our most elite troops, while giving a proud voice to one of our most misunderstood and invisible minorities.
Military Writers Society of America awarded Katey Schultz’sFlashes of War, a collection of short stories, their 2013 Book of the Year in Literary Fiction.
Women veteran writers from the current conflicts are well represented in anthologies including Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War,What Was Asked of Us,In the Shadow of Greatness,Standing Down,Operation Homecoming,Military Experience & the Arts,O-Dark-Thirty,andWarrior Writers.
Of course, women’s service is not new. You can read about our service in World War II or throughout history, listen to oral histories, read poetry by women Vietnam veterans, and more; Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq, edited by Lisa Bowden and Shannon Cain,collects writing by military women who served in the last four decades, including both essays and poems.
As the number of women serving in the total force has grown above 15 percent, and as they have played an increasingly important role in modern conflict, it has become impossible to ignore them in any serious accounting of war literature. These stories, however, represent just a tiny fraction of those that could be told. Women veteran writers who want to tell their own tales can reach out to the Veterans Writing Project or Words After War to find community, or submit a variety of creative works to the Shout! for Women Veterans annual art show.
Kayla Williams is the author of Love My Rifle More than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War.