Teresa Fazio is a former Marine Corps officer and a freelance writer in New York.
Civilians often envision American veterans as either stoic heroes or broken victims. The truth, of course, is far more complex. To see it, you need look no further than a recent batch of excellent military memoirs that shed light on the diverse experiences of the men and women fighting our wars.
Elliot Ackerman’s lyrical memoir-in-essays “Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning,” offers a personal narrative of his observations while deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and his travels in the region afterward as a journalist. A former Marine captain and CIA operative who earned a Silver Star for his actions in the Battle of Fallujah, Ackerman felt compelled to return to likely conflict zones. In “Places and Names,” he explores his friendship with a Syrian activist, meets a militant whose time in Iraq nearly overlapped with his own and revisits a scarred Fallujah building that he first encountered as a second lieutenant.
Anuradha Bhagwati’s “Unbecoming” is a raw, powerful reckoning that seeks to make sense of the author’s upbringing in an authoritarian household; her ordeal of Marine Corps sexism, racism and violence; and her post-service activism as the founder of the Service Women’s Action Network.
The number of 21st-century war memoirs has multiplied considerably since “One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer,” Nathaniel Fick’s 2005 combat memoir focusing solely on infantry action. Their themes and styles also have evolved, and more female authors are getting published. “Shoot Like a Girl” by Senate candidate MJ Hegar, “Love My Rifle More Than You” by Kayla Williams and “I’m Still Standing” by Shoshana Johnson offer portraits of women in combat zones. Williams’s second book, “Plenty of Time When We Get Home,” and Brooke King’s “War Flower” assess military relationships. Nearly all of the women’s stories, such as Kate Germano’s “Fight Like a Girl,” include episodes of gender-based harassment and/or sexual violence.
Bhagwati, who is bisexual, presents a unique, unvarnished exploration of the racism and homophobia that some military women endure. In her book, she argues that her story, as well as her post-service advocacy for female vets on Capitol Hill, lacks “the privilege of a platform that the heroic male experience was often granted.”
Ackerman, the author of the novels “Green on Blue,” “Dark at the Crossing” and “Waiting for Eden,” builds on the coming-of-age images of training, combat and homecoming in the military memoirs of writers such as Benjamin Busch, Brian Castner, Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Turner. Fans of Ackerman’s nonfiction will recognize some previously published pieces in “Places and Names.” He refrains from delving deeply into his emotions and instead hints at them through the stories of friends: Matt, an infantry vet turned businessman; Abed, a former Syrian activist; Vince, a former infantryman and writing student with visions of live-tweeting the Arab Spring; and Jack, Ackerman’s “Marine big brother,” who deploys many times. Ackerman’s tone suggests his deep feeling beneath the surface, when in his early years as a writer he asks to join aspiring entrepreneur Matt in the Middle East “not to work, just to be there.”
Reflecting on veterans’ post-military work in adjacent occupations like conflict journalism, he writes, “Our current ‘professions’ are often described with a shrug of the shoulders, followed by a spell of silence, as if our true profession is the unspoken one — the one we left behind.” When I asked him about this in an interview, he explained that as an aspiring writer he wanted to travel to Turkey as Syrian unrest was erupting. He wanted “to be present at events that felt like they were defining the time. It’s an experience that’s so large that you kind of lose yourself in it, and it’s bigger than you are.” Many veterans will viscerally feel this pull, along with nostalgia for the places where they came of age. Even after leaving the military, the desire for a sense of purpose under intense circumstances often persists.
In “Unbecoming,” Bhagwati lays bare her victories — and missteps — as a young officer and takes us on her decade-long journey to use her voice as an advocate for women. A dutiful overachiever, she had burned out and quit grad school to join the Marines and drew energy from the masochistic culture. She muscled through the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program’s black belt course on a busted knee. But she broke with the Marine gospel of unquestioning obedience, flouting the military’s rigid 1950s-era sexual mores, which were only selectively enforced — and tacitly ignored when male troops visited prostitutes in Thailand. She writes frankly about her sexual affairs as a closeted bisexual woman under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” When she vociferously advocated for women in her chain of command who were sexually harassed or assaulted and sought to prosecute the perpetrators, she received only spotty support from superiors and peers. Disillusioned after leaving the Marine Corps in 2004, she co-founded the Service Women’s Action Network in 2007 to lobby against discriminatory military policies. When I interviewed her, she said that finding her voice through her memoir gave her a chance to “express to women and girls that they were not alone.”
Both narrators admit that their military experiences sometimes leave them feeling exiled from civilian life. “For some of us,” Ackerman writes, “the wars have gone on so long that we lack context for a life outside of them.” Both he and Bhagwati redefine their sense of purpose after serving. Ackerman’s choice to leave government service, he said in our interview, was motivated by a gnawing question: “Is it the only thing I want to do for the rest of my life?” Fatherhood, he acknowledges, changed his perspective on the risks of deployment. Now, he says, his purpose is simply to write. His next novel, set in Istanbul, will be published in 2020.
“Places and Names” ends with a searing and beautiful chapter — not included in Ackerman’s original draft — that details his thoughts amid the blood, sweat and adrenaline of the Battle of Fallujah. The book’s editor, Scott Moyers, had urged Ackerman to write it. When I spoke with Moyers by phone, he pointed out that while Ackerman might have personal reasons for omitting the actions that brought him a Silver Star, the battle infuses much of his introspection throughout the book. Ackerman drafted the chapter, an artfully structured play-by-play of the intense combat scenes, in two days.
Ackerman’s and Bhagwati’s memoirs probe the complex truths of their individual military experiences. They show us how the challenges they confronted during their service helped them discover a fresh purpose after deployment. Bhagwati turned to writing after years as an activist combating the misogyny that military women endure and frequently internalize. Today, she studies the art of memoir in Hunter College’s master’s of fine arts program, with plans to teach. In our interview, she said teaching feels “like an extension” of her memoir’s mission, with the ultimate goal of “connecting with women and girls, and helping them find a voice.” Ackerman has translated his experience into literary acclaim. He has eloquently analyzed his military years and given us a thoughtful perspective on America’s role overseas. “Winning battles was not the U.S. military’s problem,” he writes. “The problem was always what came after, the rebuilding.”
As our veterans rebuild their lives in a society that often glosses over their experience, “Places and Names” and “Unbecoming” capture their humanity as contemplative, concerned Americans — not just as heroes or victims.
By Elliot Ackerman
Penguin Press. 232 pp. $26
By Anuradha Bhagwati
Atria. 321 pp. $27