“Having new conversations on subjects without words”
When KCRA interviewed my Iraq-war veteran boyfriend about the subject matter of the new book Bombshells: War Stories and Poems by Women on the Homefront, I was taken aback by his response about what he thought of the homefront experience. He said, “For all I knew, while I was out killing people, she was probably doing dishes.” Being a writer, a college graduate, a woman with an MFA, an accomplished educator, at first it raised my hackles to be defined by such terms, then I realized that it also confirmed my speculations. The warrior defines the homefront in safe terms of tending the hearth–
… as if the whole deployment is frozen in a domestic tableau vivant.
Granted, tending the hearth is an important enterprise. However, the homefront experience is the crucible under which a family is tested. While war wages with blasts and bombs, a whole other conflict of rising action occurs for families.
Writing and recording the women’s tales is in no way a competition with the warrior tales. In a way, each is an aspect of the same face, but unlike the face, there is no symmetry by which to define the other side.
Actually, the women’s tales are the unsung tales that have either vanished from the literary cannon, or have yet to be told. In the Odyssey, after Odysseus is at war for ten years and takes another ten to get back home, it is his wife, Penelope that stays up and listens to him, finally bringing him peace. How did she become so wise? What healing power does she hold to keep her society together?
The collection of women’s stories addresses an array of homefront experiences. It begins with stories pertaining to enlisting and the adjustments the families make to letting go of their sons, daughters, and sometimes husbands or wives to military service. In literary terms, it is sort of the bildungsroman of the experience. However, it is not just the growing up of the enlisted person, it is also the letting go transition that I find has no name.
Why in an advanced society, do we not have a name for such a traumatic and intense part of human experience? How trifling to reduce the experience to a situation of birds. The transition for parents is far beyond the vignette of the empty nest. Letting go of a son or daughter to war has a different tone. In these cases, where a child grows up and enlists, parents have to face once and for all that they cannot “save” their children — this might be especially hard for mothers, whose cultural training is to nurture and protect from harm in a way that fathers don’t experience regarding their sons as much, because fathers are enculturated to push their sons into the worlds of responsibility.
For wives and husbands that have sent off their mates, the homefront is every part of the human adult drama compounded and clouded with the new weight of wondering if the soldier-he or the soldier-she will make it home. There is a grid society imposes for this, for which again, we don’t have a name. The home-ster is expected to raise kids, birth or maintain the health of the kids alone, tend to all duties alone, relocate to a base or in-laws house, postpone or restart lives, and adjust to an all new environment that either has a support system or does not have a support system. Then there are the complications of pay and making ends meet while also maintaining a sense of identity, and a sense of strength for the one at war.
In keeping a sense of identity, the home-ster will embrace a framework for the experience. For some, religion is the framework that defines and compels them onward. For others, an intense “pro-patriotic” framework for the experience provides needed ideologies for which to adhere. There are also the disillusioned, whose frameworks have failed and they must go it alone to find and define their new form of identity. Again, I don’t have a name for it, but when all frameworks fail, these women still must go on. I suspect each of them holds the wisdom of Penelope.
While war wages, society imposes a framework of expectation to contain the homefront experience. In the current world, a yellow ribbon defines hope and is the symbol for supporting troops, but society hasn’t really investigated what that support really takes. The Bombshells’ stories are the stories pertaining to enlisting, to enduring, to war lingering long after the battle and all of the humanity of searching for personal identity and hope when soldiers come home whole, return wounded or do not come home at all. We are a society that must move away from the illusion of the tableau and invite the conversations on new subjects without words. This quote from C.S. Lewis has spoken to me for years. It is the same quote that my beloved and I often referred to in order to get through the deployment.
We are born helpless. As soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness. We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.
Beyond the yellow ribbons, war touches us all directly or indirectly and we must invite these new conversations on subjects without words.
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