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Final Thoughts: Why Writing and Reading About War Matters

written by Helen Benedict
on June 02, 2010

In this last entry on women and war, I want to make a simple but urgent point.

The cultural gap between the military and civilians, filled as it is with suspicion and mistrust, must be bridged — for the sake of healing war-traumatized troops, women and men, and for the sake of our collective future.

The cultural gap I'm talking about is expressed right here on this site in the sentence of one of my sister columnists, First Lieutenant Jessica Scott:

"Writing about the military is not enough to understand it. I do not believe that you can truly understand the mindset that a soldier going into combat has unless you have done so yourself."

I hear this opinion all the time from military people. "You can't understand us unless you've been through what we've been through. You have to be one of us."

This belief is one of the main reasons that traumatized soldiers keep their grief and horror to themselves when they come home, and have done so for many wars past. It is also one of the reasons women keep so quiet about the injustice and persecution they experience in the military. They fear being misunderstood and worse, disbelieved. And their fear is often realized. As one soldier said to me about coming home to her friends and family, "You can't hate them for not understanding. But sometimes you do."

And yet, the whole point of writing and reading is exactly to come to the kind understanding this soldier and Lt. Scott lament. We read books and stories to step into other people's shoes, to feel and see experiences that are far from our own. We are drawn to stories exactly because we want to know what life is like for other people so we can learn more about ourselves and the world. The only catch is... we have to actually read them. We have to actually listen.

So, with respect, I do not agree with Lt. Scott. A well-imagined book — nonfiction or fiction — can indeed make a non-combat soldier, or a civilian, know what it's like to face combat. It can indeed open the eyes of civilians enough to make them feel sympathy and compassion — even about combat, even about sexual assault, even about war trauma. After all, writers have been doing this since the ancient Greeks.

This is why reading matters. Why books matter. Reading forces us out of our own little worlds, our own skins, and makes us see and breathe through the skins of others.

So my answer to the culture gap is this. Every soldier who feels that her (or his) experience can never be understood by civilians should pause and think: Is this true? Have I really read the great war stories in literature? Have I trusted anyone with my story? Or am I so locked into the enclosed world of the military and its habitual mistrust of civilians that I haven't even given them a chance to understand?

And to every civilian, I would gently say that we owe it to our troops to listen to their stories with compassion. After all, we are responsible for the wars they fight in our names. We must face what war really is, for the less we know about war the easier it is to advocate for it. We must listen not only to our troops but also to the civilians of countries we are invading. We must listen until we understand what war really does — to soldiers, to civilians, to ourselves.

So next time you hear a civilian say, "I don't want to hear abut the war," or next time a soldier says, "Civilians will never understand," ask them to listen. Ask them to read.

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