“Society may come to understand war differently if people could see it through the eyes of women who’ve experienced both giving birth and taking life. People might learn something new about aggression and violence if we read not just about those fighting the enemy but about those who must also fight off assault from the soldiers they serve beside or report to.”
— Cara Hoffman said in her New York Times op-ed, The Things She Carries.
Browsing through lists of popular war books and films, you will rarely find stories about women — mostly it’s just men writing their own narratives and involving in a majority of cases only the gruesome details of the battlefield: The fighting and the killing; the winning and the losing; the glory and the disgrace — as if war remains constrained to a specific place or among specific groups of people.
There’s a much different dimension to war: The kind that’s seen in women’s fiction. There, women write about a mother sending her child off to war; they write about a wife hearing of the death of their husband; they write about a victim being assaulted by the victors; and they write about a soldier suffering from trauma and remembering clearly the lives she’s taken. These stories are fundamentally different from the ones written by men in the sense that they focus less on the combat itself and more on what it leaves behind.
For the longest time, it was the role of mothers, wives, and victims that dominated women’s war fiction — for the sole reason that women were not allowed to go to battle at all. Published in 1918, Della Thompson Lutes’ My Boy in Khaki portrays clearly the first of these traditional themes: The story of a mother, knowing that her son will inevitably be changed by his war experience when and if he returns, and wishing she could go in his stead.
The Lovely Leave by Dorothy Parker, on the other hand, talks of the loneliness of a wife whose husband has left for battle. In our country, Jahanara Imam shows the grief of a wife and mother in Ekattorer Dingulee (The Days of ’71). She feels bittersweet about the independence of Bangladesh since she had to pay for that freedom with the life of both her husband and son. Additionally, though not written by a woman, Khalid Hosseini’s renowned novel A Thousand Splendid Suns is a testament to how much women suffered in the war in Afghanistan.
In the first half of the twentieth century, World War I and II produced numerous books and films about women aiding the war effort. From being factory workers in the 1943 movie Millions like Us, to being spies in Carve Her Name with Pride, women came a long way from just being housewives in the media. So, while men risked their lives in battle, women were shown to take up their jobs and treat their wounds as nurses. And, as nurses and relief workers started to see first hand the horrors of wars, they wrote about the emotional turmoil they went through and about the distress of watching soldiers die — just as Helen Mackey did in her short story collection Chill Hours.
Then, as the late twentieth and twenty-first century brought about the widespread enlisting of women in the military all over the world, women’s war literature saw a drastic shift. While the stories of mothers, wives, and victims still remain prominent, we are now getting to know the life of a veteran through the eyes of the stereotypically “softer” gender. We see their bravery, their pain, and their struggle, and how their experience is so different from that of a male soldier.
Not only are female war veterans less acclaimed than their male counterparts, they are also expected to fulfill their traditional duties aside from their military ones when they return home. This difficult homecoming is depicted in Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You, where Lauren Clay, a war veteran returning from Iraq, is supposed to take care of her brother while still suffering from PTSD. Not to mention, the 2012 documentary film, The Invisible War, which shows that female war veterans aren’t even safe among their fellow soldiers: At every turn they face the risk of sexual assault and rape.
And, in this quest to add a human dimension to the cruelty of war, there is a place for every woman’s story — white or black, cis or trans, straight or gay. One such story is I’m Still Standing by a black woman named Shoshana Johnson. Taken as a prisoner of war, Johnson writes about the horror and uncertainty of captivity, of her eventual rescue, of returning home haunted by trauma, and of watching another captive being given more media coverage than her just because she isn’t white.
Plus, while it’s hard enough being a woman in what is conventionally a man’s job, being a trans woman in the military is even harder — mostly due to the fear of discrimination and bullying. So, it is due to this fear that Kristin Beck refrained from coming out in her navy days, and only after retiring did she go through with the sex reassignment surgery to become who she’d always wanted to be. Later, her story was recounted in the memoir Warrior Princess.
War fiction written by women is truly important for people born in a time of peace to fully understand the suffering and the bloodshed. War isn’t just a clash of fighting armies. Nor is it merely a pursuit of glory for yourself and your country. Instead, it is holding your child and cowering in the dark. It is seeing your loved ones die before your eyes and not being able to do anything about it. It is fearing your comrades as much as the enemy and dealing with the scars that are left behind. It is coming home and seeing the same world in a different light and knowing, deep in your heart, that you can never be who you once were.
The writer is a part of the TDA Editorial Team.