Researching the Vietnam War for her novel The Outside Lands, Hannah Kohler noticed the women were missing. She decided to put them back in focus.
Think of the Vietnam War, and you might picture platoons wading through rice paddies, door-gunners hanging from gunships, marines dragging their wounded through the jungle.
The American story of the Vietnam War has always been a male one. Of course it has: 2.7 million American men served in uniform in Vietnam, and more than 58,000 died.
But American women served in Vietnam, too. Eleven thousand American military women were stationed in Vietnam during the conflict – mostly volunteers, mostly nurses, but also doctors, CIA officers, and air traffic controllers. And then there were the unknown number of civilian women: women with the Red Cross, the USO, and other humanitarian organisations, as well as what acclaimed war correspondent Michael Herr famously called “girl reporters”.
Of the American women that served in Vietnam, 67 died – eight military, 59 civilian. Among them were two 22-year-old US Army nurses, Carol Ann Drazba and Elizabeth Ann Jones, who died in a helicopter crash near Saigon; Georgette ‘Dickey’ Chappelle, a photojournalist killed by a mine while on patrol with marines; and three missionaries, Carolyn Griswald, Ruth Thompson and Ruth Wilting, who died in a raid on a leprosy hospital during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Thirty-seven American women died in Operation Babylift in 1975, when a plane carrying Vietnamese children and American agency workers out of the country crashed shortly after takeoff.
“Women are famously missing from history. Though women have made up roughly half the world’s population, they make up less than one per cent of recorded history.”
In a war in which so many lives were lost, the deaths of these women are easily forgotten. A visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC – tens of thousands of names engraved into glossy black granite – brings home the sheer vastness of the American tragedy in Vietnam; and that is before reflecting on the millions of Vietnamese killed in the conflict.
Eleven years after the Wall was erected, efforts were made to commemorate the sacrifices that American women made in the war. A short distance south of the Wall, on National Mall, is the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, a bronze sculpture depicting three servicewomen tending a wounded soldier.
When proposals for the monument were being developed, the leaders of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation were struck by the lack of information on the American women who served during the Vietnam era; more than 20 years later, the Foundation’s Sisters Search programme is still trying to locate these women. In spite of the Foundation’s efforts to memorialise the American women who served and died in the Vietnam War, theirs remains a relatively untold story.
And then there are the other women, to whom the Women’s Memorial is also dedicated; women who didn’t serve in Vietnam, but for whom the war was also a profound trauma – mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, girlfriends, who lost those they loved to death, life-changing injury and post-traumatic stress.
When I was researching the Vietnam War for my novel, The Outside Lands, I read dozens of American memoirs and novels about the conflict, and was struck by the absence of these women. Where were they? Where was their fear and pain recorded? Their absence was understandable, but troubling; it seemed such an important piece of the picture, missing.
“You can count the number of the wounded and the dead; you cannot count the lives subsequently hollowed out.”
But then, women are famously missing from history. Though women have made up roughly half the world’s population, they make up less than one per cent of recorded history.
Feminist history has sought to recover the ‘disappearing woman’ in order to tell a fuller story of the past. There are a myriad complex factors explaining why women are disappeared from history: the militarisation of civilised society and corresponding rise of patriarchy; women’s lack of economic and political power; their socially constructed role as domestic, supporting, lesser.
Confined to domestic spaces, women’s work, though essential, was transient (the rearing of children, the sewing of clothes and making of meals), unlike the work of men (building structures, fighting wars, writing books). The fruits of women’s labour grew threadbare and vanished, along with their voices, choices and experiences.
No more so than in war, where the traumas of women – loss, grief, fear – are less physical, less measurable, than deaths and injuries. You can count the number of the wounded and the dead; you cannot count the lives subsequently hollowed out.
It was the female trauma of the Vietnam War – as well as the male – that I wanted to explore in my novel. The Outside Lands is about a young American woman, Jeannie, and the impact on her and her family when her younger brother, Kip, enlists to fight in Vietnam.
Jeannie begins the novel a naive, politically disengaged young woman; but through sheer force of history, she is made to engage with the war and protests that are eating up her generation. When her brother ships out to Vietnam, risking his life and ultimately committing a terrible, unforgivable crime, she is left to pick up the pieces.
The Outside Lands is one of a handful of recent novels that explores the female, as well as the male, experience of the Vietnam War. David Means’ brilliant, virtuosic novel Hystopia reframes the war as one of female, as well as male trauma. Emma Chapman’s The Last Photograph follows the escapades of a British war photographer and the disappearance of his wife into loneliness and grief as her husband chases a war that has nothing to do with him.
These novels seek to bring the vanished women of the Vietnam War into focus. Though they are dealing in fiction, and not facts, like feminist history they seek to recover the lost voices of women, to lift them from obscurity, and write them back into the narrative.
Hannah’s debut novel The Outside Lands is available now.
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Hannah Kohler is the Eccles British Library Writer in Residence, where she is researching her second novel, Catspaw, set in the California Gold Rush of 1849. Her first novel, The Outside Lands, is set in 1960s California and Vietnam, and is out in paperback now.