Patriotism, Feminism, and the Way We Think About Our War Stories

I have spent the last three years reporting, writing, and sharing a military story. A story of war. A story of love. A story of friendship. And above all, a story of unrelenting grit.

Writing Ashley’s War has showed me three things I did not fully understand before tripping across and then tackling a story America did not know, about a special operations team the country had never met.

1) “Women write about marriage, men write about war.”

Here’s something I learned in bringing Ashley’s War to readers:

Stories with two or more female characters in them are considered “women’s stories.” Stories with no women in them are simply stories.

From a purely mathematical perspective, this makes absolutely no sense.

“Do you like telling stories of female empowerment?” one interviewer asked me when Ashley’s War hit bookstores. I answered honestly that I had no idea what that meant. A story that reflects a remarkable event and an untold reality — a story that takes you into a world you haven’t seen or known and makes you question previously held assumptions — that interests me. But “female empowerment stories?” I don’t actually know what those are.

I just tell stories of war. Those stories sometimes include women. And often those women are not victims, as we are so very used to seeing in war, but leaders and warriors and survivors.

That’s it. Somehow this shocks folks, especially among the opinion-shaping class.

I believed I was alone in facing this frustrating mash of unmovable preconceptions. But the numbers back up my individual experience. As recent analysis from Andrew Piper and Richard Jean So found in a piece titled “Women Write About Family, Men Write About War”:

“As you can see, the results are jarring. Book reviewers are three or four times more likely to use words like “husband,” “marriage,” and “mother” to describe books written by women between 2000 and 2009, and nearly twice as likely to use words like “love,” “beauty,” and “sex.” Conversely, reviewers are twice as likely to use words like “president” and “leader,” as well as “argument” and “theory,” to describe books written by men. The results are almost too good in their confirmation of gender stereotypes. New York Times book reviews overwhelmingly suggest that women tend to write about domestic issues and affairs of the heart, while men thrive in writing about “serious” issues such as politics. It’s not that women don’t write about politics or men don’t write about feelings and families. It’s just that there is a very strong likelihood that if you open the pages of the Sunday Book Review, you will be jettisoned back into a linguistic world that more nearly resembles our Victorian ancestors.”

And this isn’t changing despite the fact that the wars we fight and the people who fight them are.

2) If only they could have become consultants…

“These people have no other choice.” From Palo Alto to Washington, D.C., many shared their views on the lack of options facing those who choose to join the military. Service, went the assumption, was simply the end product of a starved set of career options.

“It’s sad, really,” one woman told me at a West Coast book event as she talked about people she felt certain opted for a life in uniform because they couldn’t do anything else. I asked her if she knew anyone in uniform? The answer: “no.”

Less than one percent of this country has fought 100 percent of its wars for 14 years. And the nation does not know them. Of the friends and teammates I met during the two years I spent reporting Ashley’s War, three quarters graduated from college. Some chose West Point, others served in ROTC. They could have opted for Bain or BCG just as their peers did, and they would have been welcomed with opened PowerPoints. But service called them and they answered when their country asked. That was their driver, their motivator.

For those who didn’t graduate from college, no doubt their smarts, their skills and their abilities would have stood them in good stead with any number of job creators. But they opted for Uncle Sam.

Lt. Ashley White graduated from Kent State University. So did her husband. They could and did have other choices than donning a uniform and going to war. In fact, Ashley White served in the North Carolina National Guard. She didn’t even have to deploy to Afghanistan. But she wanted to serve her country on a mission that mattered. So she tried out to be part of a select team of women recruited to join Rangers and SEALs on combat missions each night. While officially banned from combat.

That idea of choosing to serve is so far removed from most of our daily realities that we want to chalk it up to constricted options. But the reality is that for Ashley White, as for others, it was not at all about hemmed-in choices, but expansive ideals: service, faith and family.

3) Women in uniform lack natural allies.

This one was very strange to me, but here is what I found: A number of people who see themselves as feminists feel uncomfortable about women getting the same opportunity as men when it comes to the military. Their politics make them queasy about access to advancement when that advancement comes in camouflage. And stereotypes abound: I honestly cannot tell you how many times otherwise seemingly open-minded people said to me, “wow, that is not at all the image I had,” when they saw photos of the women who served on the team at the center of Ashley’s War. As if they expected some scary mix of Conan the Barbarian, Atilla the Hun, and Pat from Saturday Night Live.

With few real-life women in uniform filling pages and screens, the stereotypes fill in the blanks.

One woman shared her ambivalence on social media:

“When women gain greater authority in the military, I am so torn on this.”

But I’d argue you don’t get to choose the arena when it comes to expanding opportunity for everyone: you are either for it or against it. And you don’t get to select only the fields with which you agree. Even if it is the battlefield.

Perhaps that is why, ultimately, Ashley’s War is the ultimate story of female friendship in the least likely place.

As one of the women in Ashley’s War told me in the early months of reporting on the story, meeting the other women on the team offered the first chance she had had to feel part of a family, of a band of friends just like her.

Women who embraced the “and” — who were funny AND feminine — in whatever way they defined that, driven AND caring. Women who wore body armor and eyebrow pencil, who could bake bread and climb ropes, who loved CrossFit and cross-stitch. Who painted their nails and were tough as nails.

Women who lived in as many dimensions as women do in real life.

If only our stories told theirs, we might see the world — and our wars — a little differently.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, published in paperback by HarperCollins on April 12, 2016.

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

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Author of New York Times best sellers “Ashley’s War” and “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.” Adjunct senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations. All views mine.

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A home for books and authors on Medium