Most war books are written by men and for men,” says Lea Carpenter, wife, mother, and first time author of a compelling new book called Eleven Days. The novel depicts a mother’s emotional journey as she waits to learn the fate of her son, a Navy SEAL missing on the heels of a mission gone wrong. Reflecting on her life, which she calls ‘a case study of purposelessness,’ Sara volleys the paradox of ‘low-level anger’ as a young mother abandoned for the institution of war, and her devotion to a son who has chosen the very career at the center of her angst. The novel, eloquently written and chalked full of superb insight into US military operations, showcases how the Special Forces perform unconventional, often high-risk missions for the United State’s National Security. As a working mother of three, I am this novel’s target audience. Sadly, I felt frustrated by the narrative.
Since the American Revolution, the United States has been perpetually engaged in war. The last 12 years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, where 8233 coalition forces have perished, is merely a continuation of 240 years of perpetual conflict. Some military engagements like Desert Storm are short lived with few casualties. Others, such as the American Civil War, came with a cost of 625,000 souls. In fact, since 1775, an estimated 1,321,621 Americans (mostly men) have died in military conflicts around the world. The physically and emotionally wounded are exponential, and the ripple effects to wives, children and extended family are immeasurable. Why do we send our children into war when, in all actuality, we know very little about them? I recently chatted with Lea Carpenter in New York City to learn more.
Carpenter tries to explain our fascination with conflict when she says, ‘War is life heightened.’ Not that we necessarily seek to aggrandize the monotony of daily life, but there appears to be a psychological, even political factor associated with agricultural development and evolution. Once we stopped roaming the land as individuals, and began clustering together in groups (around 5000BC), we see the first societies promoting war in order to protect their economic base. Sumer (modern Iraq) and Elam (modern Iran) were the first to go to war in 2700 BC near the modern Basra. Today, war is a universal phenomenon whose form and scope is defined by the society that wages it.
According to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, the federal government spent $613 billion in 2013 on war, and their 3.5 trillion dollar spending habits computed to a whopping 21% of the GDP. War is an economic proposition, and Carpenter’s elucidating insight, ‘I can follow the money and predict your next six missions’ makes the point beautifully. However, pursuing conflict for economic gain does not sync with the common welfare. Carpenter continues. ‘The art of the sale in the military is to reinforce the mythology of valor and justice and history.’ And who better to carry that torch than a woman? Leonidas, the Spartan King, taught us this in the legendary Battle of Thermopylae as he carefully choose his 300 warriors based on the strength of the women in their lives.
This however is where I get a bit defensive on behalf of my gender. Women in general are powerless in the decisions of war yet expected to cheer the cause. Michelle Obama’s “Support Our Military Families” platform is a glaring example. While I appreciate that she’s ever tending to an organic garden at the White House, I doubt very seriously that she’s ever been invited to the War Room. Through religious and societal rhetoric, women are expected to support war through self-sacrifice, love of God, family and country. The problem here is that you cannot give what you do not have. Seventy percent of learning comes through experience. When we serve someone else’s agenda—at the cost or sake of our own—we forfeit empirical experiences such as pain from failure and loss, or the authentic joy of reaching a self evident truth. How can we possibly teach our children to be brave if we are not our own heroes first?
Theodore Roosevelt said ‘Credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena: whose face is marred by dust, sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do these deeds; who knows great enthusiasm, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.’
Culture and art chronicle the very human stories of a particular time in history. Carpenter says “behind every war story there is a love story.” But do we conflate love and war when in effect they are incongruous? War is about violence, disruption, and the pursuit of an economic goal. Humanity is more simply about love, sharing and peace. A strong military and national defense is surely a debate for those more qualified than myself. But as a mother, I can speak to the importance of serving children with tools of reason. Indeed, its lamentable that a good patriot must be the enemy of the rest of mankind.