Saturday, November 8, 2008

Powder Writer Responds to Book Trailer: Let's Not Perpetuate Stereotypes of Military Women...and Men

Charlotte Brock is the author of the Powder essay "Hymn." Her interview with Liane Hanson of Weekend Edition Sunday can be heard here.

I think the book trailer is great and you did a wonderful job putting it together. I do have one comment though.

To say that women see or experience war differently than men is a questionable statement. I think that women see and experience war the same way as men 90% of the time. They have the same reasons for joining, the same experiences, the same worries, anxieties, joys, successes... They just also have a few extra experiences or views that most men don't. But for the most part, women are just soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines... no better, no worse, and not that different. To say that we are intrinsically different just because of our gender actually could be a disservice to women who are trying so hard NOT to be singled out. It implies that we are more sensitive, therefore more in need of extra consideration and special treatment...

You can see how this is a slippery slope. The thing to keep in mind is that we authors do not represent "women in the military." The very fact that we are writers makes us exceptions to the majority of military women. Because we write, we are sensitive beings, we do think about things more deeply than most people, male or female. There are many, many sensitive military males out there, who experience things differently than the majority of military people. To say that we have a different experience than men who feel compelled to perpetuate a masculine posturing is really falling back on and reinforcing a stereotype of military men that can be harmful both to gender relations within the military and to perceptions of the military by the general public.

And why would the fact that women are not easily accepted in the military make women see things more objectively than men? We may... but this argument needs some backing up. As I said, the women who wrote for this book are exceptional among military women because they are writers, and because they chose to share their experiences for this book. Many, many (I would say most) military women are just as bit as swaggery, "insensitive," straight-shooting, etc, as some of their male counterparts (and are these characteristics really "male" or are we just told that that's what being masculine means?). Many have absolutely no experience of sexism in the military. Some really resent the women who point out the differences between men and women, thereby making it more of an issue, and more difficult for them to fit in seamlessly.

I am not saying I am one of them... But men who oppose women's full participation on the battlefield will use exactly the same kind of argument: women are different, women need to be treated with sensitivity, women deserve special consideration, women represent a more delicate, complex type of person than men. Therefore they should be protected, therefore they do not belong on the battlefield.

Yesterday, at Col John Ripley's funeral, the Commandant of the Marine Corps spoke. And for some reason, he felt the need to mention that Col Ripley, although supportive women's presence in the military, was adamantly opposed to women being in combat zones or filling combat roles. He said (and this was at the Naval Academy, in front of an audience of male and female midshipmen), that women are different from men, that they should never be in combat, and that there's sheep and there's wolves, and on the battlefield, the sheep are always going to kill the wolves.

Needless to say I was shocked and saddened and demoralized, as I sat there in my uniform, with four medals awarded in part for being in a combat zone, knowing that all those young female midshipmen who were trying so hard to earn their place were probably sitting there sad and confused... He had just made it so easy for the male midshipmen to look down on the females, to view them as second-class citizens, not quite their equals. (Comparing us to sheep was just really uncalled for). And that's coming from the senior person in the entire Marine Corps, someone who's supposed to at least pretend to be supportive of his thousands of female Marines, many of who are busting their butts to accomplish the mission he sets for the Marine Corps in combat zones today.

Col Ripley held the view that women represent the best, most precious aspect of what it is that men fight for, or the homeland, and that because of this they don't belong on the battlefield. When we women emphasize that we are different, that we have a different perspective, it reinforces what people like the commandant think: that we are a different species from men and that we need protection, not equality (and equal opportunity to compete for all jobs and positions.)

I don't know what the other authors think, but I would suggest that we all try to refrain from making generalizations about men or women in the military. There may be some very open-minded, pro-women military guys out there who really want to like this book but are a bit turned off by the suggestion that military men are mostly swaggering macho types and that women, by virtue of being women, have a deeper understanding or perspective than they do. Many war stories written by men show deep sensitivity and complex emotions and insights, and little swaggering. (A Soldier of the Great War, Goodbye Darkness...)

I just wanted to say this to add to the discourse and maybe bring up some issues that may not have come up yet. I love the book and the essays and think it's important to get a feminine perspective out there. But we all speak only for ourselves, and our experiences have at least as much to do with our individual personalities and circumstances as our gender.

--Charlotte Brock


Christy said...

I think it’s not that women in the military are different, it’s that they are treated differently; hence, they do have different war stories to tell. For example, I’ve attended many functions as one of a few women in the audience listening to a commander motivate his division by telling us not to be “ladies.” Even as I discuss my service with civilian men, they echo the sentiments of the Marine Corps Commandant. While most seem to think it’s great that I served, they argue that I am not as physically strong as a man, and therefore couldn’t handle battle. When I tell them that I fought off a Navy SEAL, they seem a little impressed. When I tell them that I could do twice the amount of pushups as most men in my division, they start to reconsider.

Absolutely, there are amazing, sensitive men in the military. I married one of them. But I have also never spoken to a woman in the military who did not experience sexual harassment on a daily basis. Certainly I do not represent every woman in the military, but I do hope to voice the experiences of many who, like myself, experienced sexual harassment, rape, sexual assault, and were not allowed to speak about it--not even with each other. As a writer, I hope to share not only my stories but what fellow vet. Tim O'Brien describes as truer than true.

I feel that the beauty of this book is its variety. After all, should everyone have the same opinion, art might be irrelevant, but when we come together, it is possible.

Sharon D. Allen said...

I absolutely agree. I have often found women to be the greatest barriers to equality. The loudest voices against my military service have been women. One columnist in the the Chicago Sun Times, Betsy Hart, called "insidious" the "notion that men don't have a calling to physically protect women" and lamented that "military men must sometimes be trained not to respond in different ways to a woman and a man in distress." It's ridiculous and offensive that she would assume a woman's life is more valuable than a man's and that a man should more readily sacrifice his life for mine that I would for his. In a combat zone, we are not men or women, we are soldiers. That seems to irk some of the more outspoken feminists more than the male chauvanists. The military, for me, was the most egalitarian thing I've ever been a part of. Sure, as a woman, I had to prove myself, but the very structure of the military offered so many chances to do that I was very quickly viewed as a worthly soldier. People always ask me how my experiences as a woman soldier were different than the male soldiers. I always say it was a little trickier to piss standing up. That's it. That statement alone may seem crass or offensive, but let's get over our sensitivities. There's a war going on out there.

K.G. Schneider said...

Sharon, great comment.

I served more than two decades ago, and my essay, "Falling In," shows how both the male and female TIs wanted us to succeed. I coped with many sexist men and women in and out of the military, but I also met many people who just wanted everyone to succeed to the best of their abilities.

Strangely, that seems to parallel civilian life!

Dhana Branton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dhana Branton said...

I found that in an environment like Iwakuni, where there was such a shortage of women and the ones that were available didn't speak English or were bound by strict rural Japanese culture, American women didn't behave the same way toward men and each other as they did in the states. For me, it was a very powerful experience so I agree that the setting has everything to do with how you experience life. My sisters, who I am with this morning in Chicago agree. Both are veterans who served overseas and in the Gulf War.

indin said...

I guess my response got lost in cyberspace, so to sum up re: Charlotte's great post

In re: the comments about Col. Ripley's inappropriate remarks, I suggest you all might want to Google "Christian, Evangelical & Military". You'll get pages of appalling references citing the massive problems associated with extreme far right religiosity, particularly a Dominionist subsect, which has thoroughly infiltrated the military, and is highly detrimental to military women, persons of other (or no) religions, and homosexuals. These people have virtually taken over the Chaplain Corps, top brass in all the services, and top civilians associated with military matters. The Air Force Academy is the most notorious, and has become basically a bible camp with weapons and airplanes, and no amount of direct orders to cease unconstitutional abuse and harassment of non-believers. Women are routinely discouraged from aspiring to fly planes or even remain in the service, as they are viewed as mere household accouterments, baby makers and submissive wife material according to "God's Plan."

During my service (1963-1981) this trend was becoming worrisome but has absolutely flowered under the Bush administration. These people are everywhere, literally.
Their goal is nothing less than to convert every military member to their religious belief system, and to then utilize the entire military, personnel and armaments to further what they consider a crusade to crush any opposition or faith on a world-wide basis. I suspect the Col. is one of them.

I first ran across this as I was researching material for a new edition of my book, "Warriors Without Weapons: The Victimization of Military Women" and was stunned to see how far it has progressed. A mere web search is terrifying, sickening, and utterly convincing in the urgency of totally rooting these people out of the military, and cleansing the influences the highly funded civilian organizations have upon not only the military, but political policy. Indin

Anonymous said...

Actually Col Ripley did not make the comments. The Commandant of the Marine Corps made them at Col Ripley's funeral. I was there because Col Ripley was my great-uncle. Col Ripley was against women being in combat roles, but he was very supportive of women's presence in the military. He was part of another generation (he graduated from Recruit Training 51 years ago), and he was courageous to speak up for women the way he did. And if anyone has credibility when it comes to combat, he does. I encourage anyone who doesn't know about him to google him. Most importantly, Uncle John was proud of me and of my service in a combat zone.
General Conway is another story. As the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, he would do well to take a page out of Col Ripley's book and show his female Marines respect, support and pride.
Indin: that's interesting stuff but the issue of women in the military or women in combat is not just a religious one. There are many considerations, and it is a very complex topic. Some arguments against women serving in combat MOS's are better than others (the "sheep and wolves" argument not being a particularly strong one),

Bo said...

Responding specifically to Sharon Allen's remarks, I do think one ought to point out that the columnist she quotes, Betsy Hart, is not exactly a feminist as one might gather from the context. She's never hidden her opinions about the subservient place she feels appropriate for women in any facet of society; she's very conservative in every way. (She's actually, not to put too fine a point on it, a nut job.)

As to the rest of this conversation, women in the military are not only fighting for their country, they are fighting a more flagrantly trumpeted version of the crud all women in this country face every day. A radical feminist didn't speak at Col. Ripley's funeral, a man in power did. I agree with the point made by Ms Brock (and made very well I might add) that women should be careful about hurting their own cause, but frankly, to turn around and blame feminism for negative attitudes about women is just as wrongheaded as to say that women are "special" and can't defend their own country, families or fellow soldiers.

indin said...

An author named Erin Solaro has a strongly held and well-argued perspective on equalization of civic responsibilities to defend the country for both men and women. Reading her is germane and interesting. Indin

the girl who leapt through time said...

I am so glad I found this blog! I am currently a midshipman at the US Naval Academy and I was at the Ripley funeral--I was shocked and appalled that the Commandant of the Marine Corps randomly brought up that point! I found it degenerate and absolutely inappropriate. Thank you for articulating the thoughts that I have had--I can only hope that someday we can see change.