[June 12th marks the 75th anniversary of the passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, an important step toward a more inclusive America on multiple levels. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that Act and other histories of women in war, leading up to a Guest Post from one of the best scholars of those histories and issues!]
On the book and author that can help bring our conversations about veterans into the 21st century.
There’s no doubt that our narratives about veterans have evolved a lot in the last half-century (the post-Vietnam era, we could call it). Thanks to a number of topics about which I’ve written in this space—controversial activist efforts like Vietnam Veterans Against the War, greater awareness of issues like PTSD, the stories and voices of prominent social and cultural figures like Tim O’Brien and Pat Tillman—the very concept of a veteran now includes many more elements and angles than, I would argue, at any prior point in our history. But on the other hand, it seems likely to me that there’s a certain identity that is still most strongly associated with the concept—the identity of a white male, to put it bluntly—and that quite simply doesn’t align with the realities of our veterans.
As the long history of African American veterans or William Apess’s War of 1812 service remind us, that stereotypical image of veterans has never been sufficient. On a more recent note, better remembering the service and tragic death of Danny Chen would help us broaden our naratives of 21st century veterans (Chen’s death means he did not serve in a war, but his story demands inclusion in those narratives nevertheless). But alongside those important issues of race and ethnicity, shifting our images of contemporary veterans to include gender and sexuality will be equally meaningful, and especially salient in this 21st century moment that includes a move toward women in combat roles, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and other such evolutions. And I don’t know of a better voice and book through which to better include and engage with those aspects of identity in our images of veterans than Miyoko Hikiji and her autobiographical and activist book All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq (2013).
Hikiji’s story, as an Asian American young woman from Iowa whose army service took her to the heart of the Iraq War, represents 21st century American life in a number of distinct but interconnected ways, and she tells that story—along with many stories of both her fellow soldiers and the Iraqis they encountered—with grit, humor, and power. But to my mind, even more telling and significant have been her activisms and advocacies on the home front—on a number of important issues, but especially her work to raise awareness of, and demand responses to, the widespread presence of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) among our armed forces and veterans. I’ve written a good deal in this space about histories and stories that unite veterans, and of course MST is the opposite, an issue and history that not only reveal conflicts within our military, but also have the potential to divide both our veterans’ communities and our national perspectives on them. But as I argued in my fourth book, ignoring such dark histories is neither possible nor effective—we must instead engage with them if we hope to move forward, and Hikiji’s voice and work can most definitely help us do just that.
Guest Post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other stories or histories you’d highlight?