Sunday, November 06, 2005

A Military Wife's Life

In Confessions of a Military Wife, staff writer Alex Witchell provides a lengthy and engaging profile of Pensacola's prominent Navy wife and author Sarah Smiley for today's Sunday New York Times.
In "Shore Duty," the nationally syndicated newspaper and magazine column she writes weekly for two million readers about the trials, tribulations and joys of being a military wife, her vivid descriptions cover everything from discouraging mothers-in-law from horning in on homecomings after six months at sea (the men should "gently say, 'Mom . . . remember how I didn't take you to the senior prom?"') to urging young wives to join spouse club.

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It is that wry take on the life of the military spouse (political correctness aside, we're talking wives here), one that questions the rules and regulations of the shadow military she embodies, that Smiley does best. Her writing is often funny and always humane, an unexpected voice in a world long defined by ironclad rules and abhorrence of emotion. And because this world is as regimented in its habits now as it was 40 or 50 years ago, it's also something of a time warp to read her musings on a domestic life that even the Beaver could recognize: think Erma Bombeck channeling "Catch-22."
Smiley has long had a self-syndicated column and her own web site. Now, she's written a book, Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife , which CBS Television had optioned for what may become, as Witchell characterizes it, a "sitcom."

Let's hope the network makes much more out of it than that. Something, say, closer to Alan Ball's award-winning Six Feet Under -- or Witchell's own profile, which is packed with the same rich dichotomies and contradictions of a military wife's life that Smiley writes about so well in her column.

As Karen Houppert's new book also documents, it's not all fun and games; more like love-hate mixed with certainty-and-doubt, relief and dread.

Witchell writes:
Somewhere between her enforced military cheer and the recurring urge to smash it, Smiley retains a child's wish, as strong and steady as a heartbeat, that the military, in which she grew up, knows best. She wrestles with her fervent hopes that it will protect her and her family, even as she suspects it may not. Although she is not in the military, she is of it; it represents her entire life's experience, and she defends it as fiercely as she doubts it.
In one poignant and revealing passage, Witchell captures Smiley's complex and conflicted feelings about the Iraq war in a way that probably resonates with many civilians in America:
"When people are on CNN debating Bush's policies, that to me is very separate from what my husband's doing," she said. "I know that sounds naïve, but when your husband's in this, you don't think about politics because there's no choice. He's going. This is what he signed up for.

"I would probably say that I'm for the war in Iraq because I am pro-military," Smiley went on. "I'm for the war because we have people that we love, and friends that are over there, and it just feels wrong to be against it. But that's not to say I don't question why we still are there. Or what the connection is between Iraq and the war on terror."

She leaned forward, eager to make herself understood. "It's almost scary to me when I read things in the news and I start to question," she said. "Maybe it's even like being a Christian and questioning things in the Bible. You feel almost afraid because that's your faith. It's like that scary moment at church when you all of a sudden go, 'Huh, that doesn't make sense.' And you instantly feel shame, like 'Oh, no, what does this mean for me? I've based my whole world on this.' When I read things in the newspaper and I start to agree with the antiwar side, it feels like I'm going against something that's a part of me. So I turn it off and keep the politics separate because I'm in it right now."
Older readers may be reminded of increasing public attention to a similar bipolarity that afflicted the nation's families during the Vietnam War, when the draft made everyone's mother or spouse a 'military wife'. One we knew was famously apolitical -- until her son was killed, aftrer which she galvanized statewide opposition to the war with a newspaper ad memorializing every solder's death with a cross. Another was fiercely for the war -- until her son was passed over by the draft lottery and, as she put it, "my anti-war brain no longer overuled my heart."

There may be a correlation between increasing public attention to military families and public opposition to the war itself. The Pentagon prohibits direct polling among soldiers and restricts access to military base housing for opinion polling purpose. But we know Army recruitment is at its lowest level in decades and indirect opinion polls show anti-war sentiment has risen sharply among those with some connection to the military. Cindy Sheehan galvanized many other "golf star" military families to express their opposition to the war. Veterans groups that "Support the Troops, Oppose the Policy" seem to be springing up everywhere.

The anecdotal evidence is mounting that military wives increasingly find themselves opposed to the Bush administration's Iraq war policies, too, even as they support their spouses. Just today, National Public Radio's Weekend Edition - Sunday ran an extended piece on the discontent among military families.

Cindy Sheehan, NPR, Karen Houppert's book, Alex Witchell's profile of Sarah Smiley, Smiley's column itself -- and now a CBS "sitcom." When commercial TV enterainment producers finally enter the fray and pay attention to military wives, you know the ground has shifted.

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