Published August 29, 2014

A writer helps bridge the gap between military veterans and the public

By Caitlin Newman

Laura Browder

If “war was always here,” as Cormac McCarthy wrote in his 1985 novel Blood Meridian, then the human struggle to comprehend war is almost as ancient. And in the twenty-first century, as Americans experience the consequences of sustained armed conflict for the first time since the Vietnam era, we must reconsider what we think we know about war and those who serve.

For Laura Browder, a writer, documentary producer, and professor of American studies at the University of Richmond, that meant bringing the lives of women in combat into sharp focus using the lens of the humanities. She collaborated with photographer Sascha Pflaeging to create When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans, an exhibit and book that paired American servicewomen’s stories, collected by Browder, with their portraits, taken by Pflaeging. The exhibit, funded in part by a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, premiered in 2008 and has traveled to four Virginia cities. The book was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2010.

We spoke to Browder by e-mail about how the Janey project changed and deepened her understanding of the experience of military veterans. This interview has been condensed and edited.

VFH: Laura, you’ve worked with the VFH a number of times—as a fellow, as a guest on With Good Reason, as a book festival participant, and as the project director for a number of grant-supported projects, including When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans. Tell us about your inspiration for that project.

LB: When Janey Comes Marching Home grew directly out of a book I wrote called Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America [2006]. That book ends with a short discussion of wounded women vets returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—and how the deployment of hundreds of thousands of women to a combat zone might affect our centuries-old fantasies about armed women. This question led me directly to creating the Janey exhibition—and then book—with photographs by Sascha Pflaeging.

VFH: How have women in the military traditionally been portrayed?

LB: Although women have until very recently been barred from serving in combat roles in the United States (and this inability to serve on the front lines of war has been offered as a reason to deny them full citizenship rights), female soldiers have been a staple of popular culture since Revolutionary War days—and they have often appeared as either completely incompetent or as sexually out of control, or both.

It probably goes without saying that none of the women I interviewed came close to reflecting any of these stereotypes.

VFH: Did working on this project change your understanding of war and what it means to serve?

LB: I learned so much by doing this project. I don’t come from a military family, and though I thought I knew something about serving in war from all the research I had done, I soon realized that I was in fact completely naïve. Every interview I did shattered another misconception and taught me something new. It certainly took me a while to understand how compelling the experience of being in a combat zone could be for the women I talked with.

I had assumed that because most people think of women as being marginal in the military, that the female soldiers I interviewed would see themselves this way—as women first, and soldiers second. I was completely wrong on this score: their military identity was absolutely central to them. Many of them had volunteered to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan, even when they had young children at home—it was what they had trained to do. As a culture, we applaud men who do this, but condemn women: how many heart-warming photos have you seen in your local newspaper of fathers in uniform reuniting with the children they haven’t seen in a year? We see very few such images of mothers at war.

VFH: The NEH recently launched an initiative called Standing Together to encourage programs about war and military service. Why is it important to view these topics through the lens of the humanities?

LB: It’s important for many reasons—first of all, because one of the things that really struck me when I was interviewing military women is how completely separate the military and civilian worlds are in this country. They exist as parallel universes. The experience of going to war is profound and life-altering, and we really need the humanities to help bridge the gap between those who have had their lives changed this way, and those who may never have given it a second thought. When I was talking with women combat veterans, it was very common for them to say to me, “We went to war, and America went to the shopping mall.” The humanities can help us to understand how war changes the world and the people who experience it.

VFH: How has your relationship with VFH influenced your work?

LB: My relationship with VFH has probably been the greatest influence on my work—of anything. Coming to VFH in 1997 was an eye-opening experience for me: I began to see new possibilities for how to bring challenging and complex ideas to a broad audience by moving outside of traditional scholarship. The public humanities afford us an opportunity to bring people from very different walks of life together to experience complicated truths—whether through an exhibition, a docudrama, or a documentary film.

The public humanities approach has also profoundly shaped the way I teach. I see how it changes my students when they interview someone about how the historical events of his time have shaped him, or watch someone whose life they have represented in an exhibition stand in front of her portrait and words and see her own experiences in a different light. I love the surprises and life-altering moments that come with this kind of work—and it has provided me with many great lessons, as well, in rolling with the punches.

Caitlin Newman is the former associate editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.

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