Friday, May 27, 2011

Stacey Peebles's "Welcome to the Suck"

Stacey Peebles is Assistant Director of the Lloyd International Honors College, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier's Experience in Iraq, and reported the following:
The critic Susan Jeffords argued in her book The Remasculinization of America that during and after the Vietnam War, the power of the masculine collective, a community forged in war and represented extensively back in the States, effectively remade or “remasculinized” the American cultural landscape. (Think First Blood, Missing in Action, even The Deer Hunter.)

I was curious if the same could be said of the Iraq War, and devoted a chapter of my larger study of the first wave of contemporary war stories to that question. War has always shaped our conceptions of gender, from strong-armed Achilles in the Iliad to Rosie the Riveter in World War II. What effects can we see in the 21st century?

Page 99 answers that question with regard to two military memoirists: Nathaniel Fick, author of One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, and Kayla Williams, author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army. As it turns out, things have changed. Both Fick and Williams emphasize the ruptures in their own sense of masculinity and the corollary failure of the masculine collective. (Yes, Williams is female, but as Judith Halberstam has noted, masculinity becomes most legible when it leaves the white, male, middle-class body. And Williams’ smart, tough competence and dedication to the group certainly qualify as the classic criteria of military masculinity.) In sum:
For Nathaniel Fick, the logic of military masculinity is a reductio ad absurdum. Hardness [or extreme toughness and uncompromising competence] is key to being a real man, he learns, and he gets harder and harder until he realizes that the leadership role he has undertaken requires him not just to protect and guide his fellow soldiers, but also to sacrifice them if necessary. The hardness that brings the group together—the tests they all pass, the impossible tasks they all complete, the stoicism they all inculcate within themselves—is the same hardness that can potentially lead to the group’s annihilation. That, as he concludes, is too hard.

Finally, Williams, who struggles so mightily to be accepted only to fail in the end. She can hardly be called a pioneer—there have been too many women serving in too many capacities for that—but her story does mark what is perhaps a crucial turning point in the history of gender and the American military. She sees and acts on the potential for crossing boundaries—as a female soldier and as a scholar of Arabic. But Williams is denied true acceptance into the tight circle of military comradeship, and that sense of personal betrayal leads to a recognition of larger, political betrayals as well, like Shane’s [her boyfriend and a fellow soldier] inability to secure proper medical care.
In particular, Williams’ thwarted desire to transcend traditional gender norms reflects a larger pattern that we see in these new war stories—of soldiers who see the potential to break down these kinds of categories, but are prevented from doing so in the context of war. War tends to enforce categorization, even as it forces encounters across the boundaries of media, gender, nation, and the body. Welcome to the Suck traces that pattern through a selection of literature, film, and new media.
Read more about Welcome to the Suck at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue