Posts Tagged ‘Elliott Woods’

27 January, 2013

Being Female, Being Soldiers, Being Alone

This is a complicated topic for me so I’m going to mull rather than follow my usual M.O. and pronounce! I’m really interested in knowing what people think – and please, a real conversation, not a bandwagon holler from one POV or the other. I’d have written this as an op ed piece for one or more of the places where my writing usually appears, but I just didn’t feel as though I’d sorted things out enough myself to opine with any real clarity so here I am: thinking aloud more than saying anything definite, setting a few thoughts down.

From Elizabeth Wurtzel’s most recent nerve-irritating, naval-gazing rant on one end and the lifting of the ban on women in combat at the other, and Ann Sheybani’s musing on why men don’t want you to kick their ass, I’ve been dwelling on the matter of what it means to be female in America, a very different variety of female than is found, say, in Sri Lanka.

The Pentagon ruling, in particular, has made me think deeply about what is expected of women – which is very different from what they are physically capable of doing should the need arise. I acknowledge that there are some who agree with Loudon Wainwright III and the sentiments expressed in his classic, ‘Men,’ (listen below), but I wonder if they are the majority. Maybe they are.

NPR has a quick, five-point run down on the basics of the ruling here, so I won’t go into the technicalities around the decision, I am more interested in talking about what our collective consciousness is about women, particularly as it relates to their sense of worth and the realization of their potential.

I’ve been following the posts following Wurtzel’s piece on Facebook, where 40 something, serially heart-broken women claim she is articulating their particular angst, and where the vast majority of women simply want people like Wurtzel to quit whining about their bourgeois troubles. Elsewhere, there are people screaming about how women in combat positions will have to deal with having to relieve themselves in public, and others – mostly women already in combat – swearing that they have what it takes to fulfill their mission in the military.

In my piece for VQR on feminism I spoke about what it meant to grow up in a culture that expected everything from girls/women – an “everything” that was large enough to include both professional success and a joyous embrace of femininity. And though I take exception with some of what Ann Sheybani’s advocacy, (mostly because it is a predominantly heterosexual dealing with of our gender), I understand exactly what she is talking about. I can find a stool and climb up to fetch myself some vast tin of, say, olive oil from the upper reaches of a supermarket shelf, but I routinely glance around and ask for help from the nearest guy (or a taller woman). If I rent a car and cannot figure out the half a dozen new-fangled operations, I find a guy who can do it for me. A full 100% of the time the men to whom I turn for help oblige with charm and a certain self-conscious delight. I am pretty sure it is not that different from the happy feeling I get when a guy turns to me and says “which shirt do you think might look better with this tie?” When a man runs ahead to hold a door open for me and I turn to smile in thanks, I know there is a moment of mutual recognition that we are both playing a role that is as natural as breathing – where I am grateful for being cared for, and he is grateful for the ability to be a caregiver. And it lasts even if I keep walking on and hold the next door open for him.

We talk so much about the fact that there is violence perpetrated against women and yet we seem, as a culture, more often than not, to ask men not to treat us with any gentleness. To be saying, I can look after myself, you don’t need to. I wonder if this world view reduces us, more than it ever has before, to being simply bodies with female parts, rather than human beings with a feminine air, an air that softens the eye of the beholder and thereby protects us from the body with male parts?

Okay, so I know that all sounds very old-fashioned, Southern-belle, conservative, Republican – none of which I am, ack ack – but I hope that I’m getting close to getting at what I’m thinking here. And before somebody starts throwing the phrase “blame the victim” at me, let me categorically state that I am a strong advocate of all of our usual progressive causes surrounding violence against women in any form.

Some things to ponder: many American men of my generation married non-American women; many women of my generation remain terrifyingly accomplished, impeccably turned out, and alone; a disproportionate number of men end up unhappily married to dreadfully shallow women who are, nonetheless, undoubtedly female; the number of wonderful men married to equally wonderful women is alarmingly low. It’s a WTF moment. And it is particularly true for the young girls and boys whom we are raising right now, the ones who will go off into the future imagining that, somewhere down the line, they will be able to make the right partnership (whatever their sexual orientation), with the right person, that it will all just “happen” because it should, even though nearly everything we are teaching them to be right now stacks the odds against that eventuality.

I’m thinking also about two guys I know, Shann Ray, and Elliott Woods. Shann’s reflection on the women he is surrounded by, for Poets and Writers, captures some of the what I imagine “femaleness” means to a man. And Elliott (who served in the US military and has since returned to cover the war in its aftermath), and I have had many conversations about American masculinity, what has become of it, a conversation that skirts (sorry) the issue of what has become of American femininity. Both of these guys are men among men: solidly in thrall of women, appreciative of their immeasurable gifts and strengths, yet also aware of what they, as men, bring to the table, a warm, care-giving, courageousness that is as humble before fragility as it is brave before challenge.

It makes me think about war. About women heaving 200 pound men fallen in battle back to safety as a way of life, not in a time of dire necessity. About men fighting to “protect a homeland,” yet wondering (setting aside the political discussion of wars and invasions undertaken on a whim), what there is to protect if it is nothing more than themselves. It makes me think of the kids that Sonia Nazario speak of in her book Enrique’s Journey, the ones who say, repeatedly, “yes, she can send us money, but we’d rather have our mother with us here.” About what we create as a culture when we say all of can do everything, yet forget that if all of us do everything then there really is no need for the creation of meaningful relationships with each other, or for the establishment and nurturing of a collective community to which we bring what small or great part it is in us to bring to it.

It makes me think about an exchange with an old friend who has been undergoing a lot of turmoil who said, when I congratulated her on her strength, how tired she was of being strong, how ready she was to embrace that part of her that was fragile and have someone else (in this case her partner), carry her through the tough times. It makes me think of the junior prom, and the beautiful, smart, absolutely amazing girls who went alone, and the equally wonderful boys who also went alone, because the girls did not know how to let the boys know they cared about being asked, and the boys were too intimidated to do the asking of girls who never looked like they needed anything from anybody that they couldn’t get for themselves.

So there’s my thinking for this Sunday. How about you?

5 November, 2011

Whose Wars are These?

0000-166The wars that permeated my childhood were those that were internal to my country, Sri Lanka. Therefore everybody was involved. There was no refuge from it, no matter your social status, particularly if you were male. You could be killed going to market, you could be abducted from your dorm-room, you could be left to burn with a tyre around your head, you could be shot, you could die with dozens of others in a suicide attack. Everybody knew where everybody else stood, where their sympathies lay, what hue colored their politics. More than that, everbody knew someone who had died and most of us knew more than a few. We did not have a particular love for living in a state of war, far from it. But they were the circumstances of our history for nearly three decades, and we lived or died along with the fortunes of our country.

I would like to believe that the fact that America’s wars have been waged overseas is the reason why this kind of intimacy with mayhem and loss does not pervade every home here. I would like to imagine that it is universally mystifying to Americans that America could be fighting two major wars and the vast majority of people could go on with their lives knowing not one soul who has been dispatched to kill and die, nor any who returned injured or in a casket. I know only three. The husband of my college room-mate, the son of a Veterinarian in the town I used to live in, and a fellow-writer and photographer whose concerns mirror mine; none of them untouched by their years of service, one of them lost entirely. How strange it must have been for these three young men to return home to people fretting about organic apple cider and home-made iced-tea, about peanut-free classrooms and special activities for those who do not celebrate any one of the national holidays. “Americans and their damn bottles of water,” one of them quipped to me. “What a joke. Like they really imagine they might suddenly die of thirst.”

How strange that when I posted a link to an essay by one of those veterans, Elliott Woods, on Facebook, nobody clicked it. This is what I said in my note:

Just read this piece of reporting by Elliott Woods. Between poppy palaces and narchitecture and 100 minefields still waiting to explode in greater Kabul, between 15,000 troops and upto 1.5 million Afghans killed during the reign of the Soviets and the advent and departure of the Americans is a story that too few of us know. Even those of us who in one way or another contribute to the “donor money” that accounts for four-fifths of the $14 billion GDP in Afghanistan.

I decided to see if it were the case that nobody was paying attention or if nobody cared. I followed up with a joke about Facebook cut and pasted from some online source for a thousand and one jokes. There were the comments I had been missing. Yes, nobody cared. We care about the here, the now, and the herenow does not involve Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, vast swaths of Africa or most of the rest of the planet and certainly not those who were forced to go there to commit the acts no mother raises her child to perpetrate, and who must then return to our midst, shattered and frayed, this generations particular brand of invisible men.

How strange that Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Olsen went down in a hail of enemy fire aimed at him by American policemen during the img_4139course of a peaceful protest in the streets of Oakland, California. After two tours of duty in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in Iraq’s Anbar province, site of some the war’s fiercest battles, this young man who had been just 14 years old when we experienced the events of 9/11, lay on the streets on Tuesday, the 25th. Why? Because he had divined that much of the economic inequity in America was fuelled by the military industrial complex. That, and the fact that nobody gave a damn where he had been and what he had done or seen, just pass the cocktail shrimp and Muscat.

According to a report released by the Center for a New American Security, from 2005 to 2010, service members took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours. Scroll down on the report and we find the statement that the “VA estimates that 18 veterans take their lives every day,” and then goes on to state that they have no way of knowing the accurate number because of their inability to track the veterans.

Long ago when I used to watch The News Hour on PBS for my one hour of not doing, the segment used to end with a silent screen on which appeared the names of the newly dead Americans. I don’t know that they still do it, I don’t watch anymore, but I do know there is a searchable database on the PBS website which lists the dead, from 1 on the page 1-25 of 4885. That list stopped on August 2010. I no longer know how many people have died. I remember writing about the 2000th soldier, Staff Sgt. George T. Alexander Jr., back in 2005 for the local paper in Waterville, Maine.

Michael Meade, in an interview done by John Malkin which appears in The Sun (November, 2011), speaks, among other things, about the distinction between warriors and soldiers:

“I work with veterans coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am perosonally against war, but I also understand the sense of exile and the alienation felt by people returning from all the battlefields of life. I’ve been working with veterans for years and watching the struggles of souls trying to find a way home. in a sense they are some of the most exiled people in modern culture. There is a burden of tragedy that they’re carrying for all of us.

Mass culture distorts our instincits and inclinations. Some people are natural fighters so they become soldiers. But soldiers are the opposite of warriors: soldiers do what they’re told; warriors do what they feel is best for everybody…A warrior isn’t looking for war. A warrior looks to be of service to something beyond him or herself. What’s happened is that the culture uses that willingess to serve its own narrow ends…When you take the willingness to sacrifice and aim it in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons, you get damage, and not just to the individual. That damage is inherited by future generations. For healing to occur, the truth has to come out, and by ‘truth’ I don’t mean which side was right. That’s the small argument. The truth is that souls were hurt, and healing is required for the individuals as well as the collective.”

That burden of tragedy – of wars waged, of warriors forced into the servitude of soldiering – that burden belongs, surely, to all of us in whose name these things were perpetrated, not just the servicemen coming home to places that are unreconcilable with the places they’ve been in, places filled with people who don’t recognize them and in some ways never saw them to begin with. What is a human being to do, ever, about war? What is an artist to do? What can a writer say? If my words cannot move anybody to see more clearly, listen more closely, of what use are they?

It is the 5th of November. I know why I felt compelled to write about war and veterans today. I write about them because I’m thinking about a beautiful, talented writer who is my friend. I have never met anybody in her family. I know nothing about her brother. She never spoke of him until I emailed her to tell her that I had lost my mother and did not know how I would go on. She told me about him then, about his time in Iraq and the fact that he had, upon his return, unable to reconcile himself to all that he had witnessed and participated in, killed himself. Today marks the seventh anniversary of his passing. I have nothing to offer her or to any other family that has gone through this particular kind of loss, except my attention to the whole of their experience, the whole of their grief.

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The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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