Friday, November 07, 2008
Lisa Bowden is the Publisher of Kore Press and the poetry editor of Powder.
Shannon Cain is the Fiction Editor of Kore Press and the prose editor of Powder.
Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq
At a writers’ conference in Georgia in the summer of 2005, an American veteran of the war in Iraq stood at the podium and read a personal essay about his time as a soldier. Overcome with emotion and using language both beautiful and stark, he told about the mutilations he’d seen, the bloody losses, his struggle with self-hatred upon returning home, and the profound mistrust he now harbored for his commander in chief. The room went silent with respect for his service and horror for his pain.
That day in Georgia, a thought arose: what about the women who have served? Where is their perspective? Who will publish their words? Thus the idea for this anthology was born.
We put out a call. We asked women in the ranks, especially those who had served after September 11, 2001, to send us their writing. We waited for the flood of responses. Only a few pieces arrived. They were excellent, but not enough to assemble a book-length collection. Then, an email from a soldier who told us of the repercussions, formal and informal, that the military imposes upon those who speak their minds while on active duty.
We reissued our call to military women, farther and wider, and expanded the scope. We asked women who had served anywhere, at any time, to tell their stories. And now the essays and poetry arrived. The writing blew our minds, broke our hearts and gave us hope. And suddenly we found ourselves putting forth a new rendering of American history.
Here was writing that gave us the full scope of the military experience, including a range of ideas about what it means to be a patriot. As advocates for peace and justice, we went into the project determined to publish a book that would somehow help end the war in Iraq. In the process we found ourselves expanded, and in awe. We saw immediately the necessity of setting aside any agenda. We offer this poetry and this memoir edited but not manipulated, selected but not filtered. In so doing we amplify these voices, and we insist upon their place in a long and nuanced literature of war and peace.
Former Navy Sonar Technician Khadijah Queen understands poetry as “a necessary reaction” to the death of her colleagues. Army Reserve officer Victoria Hudson, who has been mobilized five times in her thirty years of service, says she wrote about what she saw in Bosnia and Iraq in order to “integrate those experiences into memory.” Air Force jet engine mechanic K.G. Schneider says she writes to express her gratitude, “so that they who served with me can be remembered.”
The writers here are divided on the question of whether they would re-enlist. Marine Corps Officer Charlotte Brock has “never regretted joining,” but notes “if you asked me that question at various times over the last six years, I would have given a different answer.” Former Army Communications Officer Terry Hurley would not hesitate to join again, and is especially drawn to the idea of training new recruits. Arabic linguist Rachel Vigil has “no desire to serve the current administration’s objectives,” and says “nothing would talk me into joining again.”
Former Air Force medic Deborah Fries looks back at her service during the Vietnam era and realizes if she had it to do over, she “would have marched for peace rather than for a base commander.” Bobbie Dykema Katsanis, who served in the Army National Guard Band, finds the culture of the military “anti-intellectual, sexist, and subliminally violent,” and has had to work hard to leave it behind. Former Air Force traffic controller Christy Clothier discovered that the military demanded “silent passivity” and is still in the process of rediscovering her voice. Navy administrative officer Donna Dean reports she endured “denigration and open hostility throughout her active duty career” and more than 25 years after her discharge still struggles every day with the effects of post traumatic stress disorder.
But Ohio National Guardsman Sharon Allen, who served as a petroleum supply specialist in Iraq and Afghanistan, says that the military gave her a “confidence unrivaled by civilian training.” R.O.T.C. student Cameron Beattie reports that her experience in Airborne School has changed her forever: “If I can jump out of an airplane, I can do anything.” Navy Religious Programs Specialist Dhana Marie Branton believes she wouldn’t be the writer she is today without her military background. “I became myself,” she says, “rather than the person others expected me to be. I learned to own my mind.”
“The military is a group of diverse human beings like any other,” Dykema Katsanis wrote to us in an email. “Some of us are politically liberal or progressive; many of us are against the war and oppose the current administration’s foreign policy. Often these voices are squelched in American public discourse.”
Regardless of our contributors’ divergent views on the war and on the necessity of service, every one of them comes together on one point: it’s damn tough to be a woman in the military. Brock, whose essay “Hymn” appears in these pages, says “why is there no national debate on the fact that women are subject to institutional discrimination in the military? Nowhere else in this country are women so blatantly prohibited from certain jobs solely on the basis of gender. The American public should know what military women have achieved.”
In the science fiction movie Contact, an astronomer/astronaut played by Jodie Foster is launched into space at the invitation of a benign race of extraterrestrial beings. Wide-eyed at what she encounters, she says, “We should have sent a poet.”
Indeed we must send poets and writers to places both heavenly and hellish so they can return to describe what the rest of us are incapable of seeing. When we send women to war, they bear witness in ways that men cannot. The memoirists and poets in this volume have stood wide-eyed at the border between war and peace, and in these pages they gift us with a record of what really happened there.