CAMP 2011 panel ‘Women and War: Part I’

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(Left to right) Moderator Andrea Stone, Huffington Post; Cami McCormick, State Department correspondent for CBS Radio News; Nancy Youssef, Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy; Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network; Michele Weldon, journalism professor and memoirist.

Women make up 15 percent of the fighting force, even more in the Air Force, according to moderator Andrea Stone, formerly of USAToday now of Huffington Post. And we’re also more frequently seen as correspondents on TV, in print on the radio.

In the first of two panels on the subject at JAWS CAMP 2011 in Asheville, N.C., the conversation ranged from the risks of injury to the risks of sexual assault, the opportunity for memoir and the undercovered stories of war from a military perspective.

The panelists:

  • Cami McCormick, now State Department correspondent for CBS Radio News, spent 18 months at Walter Reed recuperating after a roadside bomb blew up the vehicle she was in;
  • Nancy Youssef, Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy, has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Anu Bhagwati is executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network
  • Michele Weldon is a journalism professor and memoirist.

McCormick recalled an obsession with maps as a child that led to international journalism – and to question what passes for  conventional wisdom in the U.S. She typically preferred to be embedded, though she realized that was the more dangerous assignment. When she arrived in Afghanistan in 2009, she was surprised at the prevalence of roadside bombs, one of which seriously injured her.

McCormick says she’s told that when she was being evacuated after her injury, she said “It’s nothing that a cigarette and a glass of whiskey can’t fix.”

She ended up at Walter Reed. “It was a very unique experience to see that from the inside. Not a lot of civilians see the inside,” McCormick said. “There are a lot of miracles happening there.”

As an Egyptian-American, Youssef wanted to be an international correspondent, creating bridges among people.

“I never intended to be a war correspondent,” Youssef said.

Her Arabic doesn’t always help in war zones, since she has an Egyptian accent: “It’s kind of like being from Brooklyn and going to Alabama.” But the ability to understand the language and listen is key.

“You realize early on how different things are, what you see, versus what you’re told,” she said. “The Iraqis thought this nation of Arnold Schwarzeneggers  was going to come and liberate their country” then tell them where to go to work on Monday; they thought the U.S. would have a plan to implement.

She often looks for stories in out-of-the-way spots, such as hair salons, where she can hear what women are talking about. “I don’t think of myself as a woman correspondent, I think of myself more as a cultural correspondent. That said.. we bring different experiences, we bring a necessary humanity.”

Bhagwati illuminated the perspective of women serving in the military: “They don’t want to be seen as women, they want to be seen as Marines or soldiers… We have a long, long road ahead.”

She said the media often comes in with a preconceived notion, looking for a stereotypical or sensationalized story. The story of sexual harassment and assault in the military is real, but more nuanced than the story is often told.

“We don’t want to be seen as victims, but in many cases we’re victimized,” she said. “But we rarely get help, so we need attention. It just goes back and forth and back and forth.

“When you’re one of very, very few women in the military… you sort of end up coping, adopting the tactics of your male counterparts,”  she said. “You can never really escape the hostile workforce.”

Michele Weldon gives memoir writing workshops around the country, the attendees are mostly women. Among the motivations to write memoir are informing others, historical reference and juicy revelations, but also the healing part of writing one’s personal story. Why do people read memoirs? To see the train wreck, to learn and discover new things. Weldon’s PowerPoint is here:War memoirPresentation1

Weldon traced a bit of history of women’s war memoirs. Susie King Taylor’s “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp” told the story of being a nurse to black soldiers in the Civil War, but it was criticized for not being enough about the war. The World War I narrative was more about women being at home and the men being gone; some academics say this is when lesbian and feminist literature was born.

During World War II, women correspondents initially were seen as oddities (Margaret Bourke White, Martha Gelhorn, Claire Booth Luce, etc.) Women journalists brought a different sensibility to war coverage, a different way to talk about war. During Korea and Vietnam, journalists like JAWS members  Edie Lederer and Tad Bartimus were fighting for space and parity compared to their male colleagues.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and the Arab Spring, there are cultural differences that make Western women’s presence potentially awkward. Memoirs are about the war – but not really, they’re also about the person telling the story.

What’s next are stories from women in combat written by women in combat, moving past sensationalism into what it’s really like to be part of war, Weldon said.

Stone said she always had a feeling in the Middle East that she was  “the third sex” because she could go places native women couldn’t go. Youssef said she had that feeling more in Afghanistan, where virtually all women stay inside, so her presence was unusual.

Bhagwati said women soldiers often see themselves as “central casting for the media” when they interact with journalists. Sometimes women reporters treat women soldiers as if they’re daughters, others as if women can’t possibly be violent beings, but “we are.”

McCormick noted that “everywhere I’ve been covering wars there have been at least as many women journalists if not more.” She recalled a male journalist picking up credentials saying, “There’s so many women reporters here. My wife was worried that this was dangerous.”

She said there’s something that compels her to cover conflict, in part because people need to know what’s happening in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I don’t know what draws us out there, I don’t know what draws men out there,” McCormick said. “You almost live in a fight or flight syndrome. As soon as i would land in New York I’d be in my boss’ office begging to go back.”

Technology impacts coverage both positively and negatively, McCormick said. With radio, “30 seconds to tell what’s going on in Afghanistan is tough.” But she said she could also do 25 different pieces in a day.

Youssef noted much of the technological innovation comes from the military, from the telegraph to the Internet. As a print journalist, she doesn’t face as much pressure as McCormick might.

“You’re always thinking about the bigger picture and how to take these little pieces of information and put them into the bigger pictures,” Youssef said. “What technology has forced us to do is be smarter. You have less time and less space to communicate a very complex war.”

In response to the question, “What stories are we missing?”, Bhagwati said it’s more that stories aren’t being done well. One example is homelessness among women veterans. Stories often sensationalize poverty, with reporters searching for single mothers, “if they have children it’s even better.”

“Homelessness is not just a function of combat. There are other pieces there.”

Another missing story angle is don’t ask-don’t tell, which had a greater impact on women and people of color than on the white men who were the face of the issue.

And sexual assault of men in the military is virtually never covered.

“Rape in the military, it affects men as well,” she said. “Sexual assault is endemic to the military… The VA right now is treating as many male victims as female victims.”

Continued: ‘Women and War Part II: Keeping Safe’

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