By Jerri Bell
I’d been thinking about submitting work to The Journal of Military Experience, and a few nights ago I finally decided what to send. I curled up on the living room sofa with my phone to review the submission guidelines before heading up to my office to work on some last revisions. The second issue caught my eye: a great excuse to procrastinate for the rest of the evening. I settled down with the dog under my favorite afghan and opened the file, with a sigh of pleasure and deep gratitude for the editors who had collected and edited military writing for my reading pleasure. I opened the file and began reading Eric Newhouse’s introduction.
Read Eric Newhouse’s introduction here.
Halfway through, my amygdala went to General Quarters. I recognized the racing heart shallow breathing tingling skin prickling nerves that mean I need to fightfleefuckorfeed. I reread the offending clause and its paragraph twice to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood: “…we shouldn’t be sending our girls into conflict ever.” I looked up Mr. Newhouse’s biography on line to try to gain some insight into his reasoning. I tried a few deep yoga breaths. No joy. I was pissed, and my default setting is fight. I opened up my Facebook account and tried to pick a fight with the MEA President.
Even though I’d interrupted his Star Trek episode to rant and rave, and even though we barely know each other, he responded with patience and common sense. He reminded me that it is not our job as editors to censor material that makes us uncomfortable or with which we disagree. He also pointed out, not unkindly: “It’s not really natural to get that angry over something you read.”
His hint that I probably needed a little perspective was well taken, but ultimately I disagree. Words matter. Words, well written, engage our deepest emotions – including anger. Words on a page are the visible tip of an iceberg of propositions that a writer hopes to express. Here are the propositions that I perceive, correctly or incorrectly, to be underlying Mr. Newhouse’s clause about “girls” in conflict. First, he proposes that the females who enlist in the armed forces are “girls” and not “women.” Second, he proposes that he has enough authority to speak definitively about all women and all military combat (what I assume he means by the word “conflict”). Third, he proposes that involuntary limits should be set on the actions and choices of every woman, including those women who voluntarily enlist in the armed forces to defend the Constitution.
The proposition to restrict the military service of American women is an old one, and – unless there’s a return to universal conscription of men, a policy that Mr. Newhouse seems to recommend in his next sentence and one that strikes me as unlikely in the extreme – it’s neither realistic nor worth getting angry about. What really set me off was his tone, his attitude toward at least the women in his audience.
For a woman veteran with twenty years of active service, the propositions that seem to underlie Mr. Newhouse’s comment carry significant negative associations. Take the word “girl,” for example. For the first fourteen weeks of Naval Officer Candidate School, where I was the only female officer candidate in my company, my name was “Girl.” Military indoctrination is supposed to remove some layers of individuality and mold recruits into a warfighting collective. But 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. “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!”
Further underlying the sound of the word “girl” in my ear is 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. Although I was an intelligence officer – not a General Unrestricted Line Officer – my opportunities were even more limited. Sea duty was a prerequisite for selection to the few flag billets and fleet intelligence officer billets; the only intelligence jobs afloat were on combatants, and thus prohibited to women until 1994.
I carry all that baggage and much more into any discussion of gender equality in the armed forces. Under those circumstances, it was inevitable that I read Mr. Newhouse’s statement with a visceral feeling, one that began in my glands and ended in my fingertips and toes and scalp and the edges of my teeth, that his tone was condescending to women. That he had just devalued my twenty years of service, the combat experience of my female colleagues who deployed in Desert Shield/Desert Storm and OEF/OIF, and even the experience of several of the contributors to the JME issue he had just guest-edited.
When I joined the Navy in 1988, women could react to condescension and devaluation in one of two ways.
Debating, arguing and complaining were out: we watched our shipmate Paula Coughlin go down in flames when she blew the whistle on Tailhook. So we kept our heads down and our mouths shut and thought “Fuck you, yes I can” and worked twice as hard as our male counterparts for the same recognition. (For twenty years, “Fuck you, yes I can” was my personal mantra.) Or we deflected the insults with humor.
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.”
Many women’s advocates would say that I should have written them up. That by making their comments into a joke I was perpetuating a culture of sexual harassment and permissiveness about sexual assault. Maybe that’s true. But 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. I felt – and I know that many of my contemporaries felt – that we had succeeded when women deployed to combat roles in OEF/OIF. Women were now almost fully sharing in the responsibility of defending our country. And because we were doing almost all the same jobs, we could finally compete for promotion on an equal playing field with men. Some harassment and extra work seemed, to many women in my generation, a small price to pay for that opportunity.
A few months after I joined the staff of the Veterans Writing Project in 2013, the news media renewed its coverage of sexual harassment and military sexual trauma. Veterans Writing Project director Ron Capps and I began to talk about why women veterans weren’t writing or speaking up about their experiences as much as men: we see this frequently in our seminars and workshops, and in the submissions to O-Dark-Thirty. (At the time of this writing, in two years and nine print issues of O-Dark-Thirty we have published poems from six women veterans, nonfiction from two, and short fiction from one. We have published work from only a handful more in our electronic journal. It’s not because we don’t want or like the work – there just isn’t that much of it coming across the transom.) In graduate school, I refused the fiction advisor’s suggestion that I write a Navy story from a woman’s viewpoint; I know exactly why so few military women are telling their stories. Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University, pointed out earlier this year in the London Review of Books that the tradition of actively or passively silencing women’s voices in public discourse goes all the way back to the Trojan Wars. Ovid says that King Tereus of Thrace raped his sister-in-law Philomela and cut out her tongue to escape denunciation; when we choose to remain mute for fear of denunciation and retribution, we cut out our own tongues. We become complicit with those who would silence us.
Twenty years of my silence and humor and hard work were not enough. Gender relations in the military have improved since 1988, and many service members have internalized more respectful attitudes. But the disrespectful behaviors of those who scorn change have simply been driven underground, and silence allows their actions to continue. The job isn’t done; the mission is not yet accomplished. It’s time for more women veterans to take the next step: to start speaking up and writing honestly about our experiences.
I’m wrestling with my own baggage in fiction. Gender relations in the military, like many things in life, are complicated and messy – traits that make the best kind of fiction. The questions about men and women serving together in peace and during conflict have not been resolved; there are no easy, definitive answers of the sort that Mr. Newhouse proposed when he wrote “we shouldn’t be sending our girls into conflict ever.” That’s why publications like The Journal of Military Experience and O-Dark-Thirty are so important. They provide dedicated space for veterans of both genders to explore the essential, complicated, and controversial issues at the heart of both military service and our humanity. Through fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry, writers who happen to be veterans can grapple with the heart of life in twenty-first century America: its beauty, its ugliness, its triumphs and tragedies, and most important of all – its complexity.
And so I would like to challenge Mr. Newhouse to explain here what propositions actually underlie the words that he wrote about women and conflict in the second issue of JME. Perhaps I’ve ascribed to him ideas and an attitude that he didn’t intend. I’d like to know what he encountered in his work with veterans that led him to make such an absolute statement about women and conflict, especially in a journal that promotes and publishes the experiences of all veterans regardless of gender. Women veterans, I challenge you as well: let’s break the silence. Let’s discuss gender relations in the military and our experiences of war and trauma – in all their complexity, chaos and uncertainty – in publications like The Journal of Military Experience and O-Dark-Thirty. Let’s write and publish our stories and essays and novels and poems. Let’s take life and make it into art.
Jerri Bell served in the Navy from 1988-2008. Her fiction has been published in Stone Canoe; her nonfiction has been published in The Little Patuxent Review and the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and on the Quivering Pen and Maryland Humanities Council blogs; and both her fiction and nonfiction have won prizes in the West Virginia Writers annual contests. She is currently the managing editor of O-Dark-Thirty, the journal of the Veterans Writing Project.