What You Did in the War

What Women Really Think
March 9 2010 4:09 PM

What You Did in the War

In the New York Times , Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Roman Skaskiw explains why he won’t be watching The Hurt Locker , The Messenger , or any other celebrated take on our current quagmires: He fears for the integrity of his wartime memories. After a while, Skaskiw says, "you struggle to distinguish how you felt from how you are expected to feel. Often it feels easier to surrender to expectation." It’s a lovely essay , too subtle to be summarized here, and deserving of the few moments it takes to read in full. This bit especially jumps out:

Although it puts me and many of my personal friends in a flattering light, I fear the narrative of the reluctant, well-intentioned soldier because, along with similar reverence for all things military, it seems a requisite for endless war. The misguided motives of empire hide behind the sympathetic portrayal of its servants…

I resent the thanks I occasionally get because it is given without knowing whether I commanded an infantry platoon or a desk, whether I’d been a good leader or a bad one, and I resent the pity because, all told, I’ve benefited from all the military has taught me. Occasionally, I’m tempted to walk the red carpet of victimhood so often unrolled at my feet. For a split second, I even wonder if it isn’t deserved, and this scares me. I feel my memories bending to accommodate the world.

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I think Skaskiw’s comments actually speak well of The Hurt Locker, a film less interested in victimhood than thrill-seeking. But the vast majority of public analysis does conform to this dubious hierarchy of moral agency: troops as clueless, blameless servants, politicians as guilt-laden warlords. Granting that the choice to enlist is, in fact, a choice remains taboo. One supports the troops; one claps for them in the airport; one avoids asking questions. Whatever the merits of this kind of mindless, mass absolution, it entails a great a deal of condescension.

Skaskiw is an acquaintance of mine here in Iowa, and I don’t want to belittle his experience by drawing outlandish comparisons he wants nothing to do with. But this is a blog about women, and part of the reason I found his essay so moving is that I recognized its emotional logic in the experience of being told, as a woman, that my choices are not my own. That one engages in sex work because one is damaged or sells ova because one is desperate or sleeps around in sad search of acceptance. You can call this "dehumanizing," or something, but as Skaskiw recognizes, the danger lies somewhere deeper-in coming, through repetition, to believe in the excuses others think you are owed.

Kerry Howley's work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and the New York Times Magazine. She is currently finishing a book about consensual violence, ecstatic experience, and the body.

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