If I were to ask you to name a book about U.S. soldiers or American wars, you'd be able to come up with several easily off the top of your head. There's Ernest Hemmingway's A Farewell to Arms, of course, Joseph Heller's satirical Catch-22, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, and Jarhead by U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford about his time in the First Gulf War, and so many more. All of these novels have one major thing in common other than war: Men. They're all incredible, and often heartbreaking, stories of war that need to be told. But particularly with Veteran's Day here, we need to give voice to the often overshadowed female American soldiers.
Now, off the top of your head, could you name fiction or nonfiction books that tell the stories of female U.S. Marines, Navy sailors, or Army soldiers as quickly as you could from the male perspective? I'd like to think so, but I'd bet not.
It wasn't until 1948 that the United States passed a law that made women a permanent part of the military — though that doesn't mean they weren't involved far, far before that. As far back as 1775, when the American colonies were fighting against the British in the Revolutionary War, women supported the war movement as nurses, cooks, and doing laundry services. And, as some of the below books would showcase, no law could stop women from dressing as men and enlisting in the military anyway.
It's been this struggle to obtain the same rights as men in the military that make these female soldiers' stories unique and necessary. In the spirit of Veteran's Day, these 11 books, both fiction and nonfiction, tell the stories of women's parts in the U.S. armed forces.
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott
Karen Abbott's Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is the kind of page-turning book you can get so absorbed in that you keep forgetting it's nonfiction. If you're looking for underrepresented narratives of women in American Wars, you've come to the right place. Abbott's book centers on four women who became spies during the Civil War — risking absolutely everything for a cause they believed in on both sides of the war, eschewing the traditional roles society had for them.
Sand Queen by Helen Benedict
Though it's a fictional story, Benedict's Sand Queen is inspired by true stories of female U.S. soldiers fighting in the Middle East — a perspective that is unfortunately far too rare. Benedict interviewed around 40 female veterans of the war in Iraq to tell this completely heartbreaking, vivid story of the particular difficulties of being not just a soldier, but a female soldier. For the women, it's not just the threat of combat, but the threat of men within their own units.
Benedict also wrote The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, a nonfiction book centered on the same issues.
Soldier Girls by Helen Thorpe
Helen Thorpe followed three female U.S. soldiers over 12 years, as they fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, coped with leaving their husbands and children, and suffered injuries in the war. The book doesn't sugarcoat; the soldiers get drunk, have affairs, deal with harrassment on the base, and face death and horrific injuries. It's a massive feat what Thorpe is able to pull off — you feel intimately close to these women and yet the overall scope is so massive that it's truly hard to forget.
Don’t Mean Nothing by Susan O'Neill
Susan O'Neill served as an Army nurse in Vietnam, and her short story collection Don't Mean Nothing is iconic as the first work of fiction by a woman who served in the war. What's unique about O'Neill's perspective is that she constantly reminds through her stories that while the men were sent to combat the enemy, she and the rest of the nurses were sent to care for anyone, enemy or ally. The title is a mantra said by the nurses and the soldiers to fortify themselves against the horrors that they faced everyday.
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
While The Lotus Eaters doesn't tell the story of female soldiers in particular, it does give a unique perspective on war from a woman, an American combat photojournalist covering the Vietnam War. In the novel, Helen, the photojournalist, remarks that "women see war differently," and we as readers are plummeted into her visions with full sensory details that make her experiences feel alive. There's a love story also within the pages, which tackles the omnipresent issue of whether love can truly conquer even war.
Band of Sisters by Kirsten Holmstedt
Holmstedt seeks to remind people that more than 155,000 female U.S. soldiers served in in the Iraq War, with Band of Sisters. She takes her stories one woman at a time, telling incredible tales of the military's first black female pilot and the first female pilot to be shot down from the sky and survive. She isn't afraid to stand up and say that women not only should be allowed to fight, that they're as strong as men, and that they need greater protection and rights within their units.
They Fought Like Demons by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook
Though women were technically not allowed on the front lines in the U.S. Civil War, that didn't stop the ambitious from making it happen anyway. They Fought Like Demons brings to life some of the stories of women who went undercover as men in order to fight in the war, including more than one woman who was successfully in disguise until she literally gave birth on the battlefield. But it's not just these crazy tales (though there certainly are more of those), the book also delves into what caused women to want to fight, even breaking the law to do so.
A Piece of My Heart by Keith Walker
There are dozens of movies we think of when we think of the Vietnam War: Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Born of the Fourth of July, Good Morning Vietnam — and this is without the help of Google. But none of these iconic representations of the war include the female perspective of combat, and more than 15,000 women served in Vietnam. Keith Walker seeks to remedy that with A Piece of My Heart: The Stories of Twenty-Six American Women Who Served in Vietnam. Walker spoke with these women not just about the war itself, but about life afterward, facing PTSD.
Women Heroes of World War I by Kathryn Atwood
Atwood opens a window to women who faced World War I from four different perspectives — spies and resisters, medical personnel, journalists, and soldiers. There's American journalist Madeleine Zabriskie Doty, who fought so hard to return the truth of the war back to her home that she risked her life travelling back and forth to Germany. But it's not just American women: There's also Russian Maria Bochkareva, who led the Women's Battallion of Death, the all-woman combat unit, and many others.
Revolutionary by Alex Myers
In Revolutionary, Alex Myers tells the incredible story of the legendary Deborah Samson (who, incidentally I played in my 5th-grade class play), who pretended to be a man in order to join the Continental Army to fight for American independence in the Revolutionary War. And Myers has reasons for taking such care in the story, as the author is a descendant of Samson.
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
What jumps out from Laird Hunt's Civil War novel Neverhome is the voice of Ash, the protagonist who disguises herself as a man to fight for the Union. Hunt gives a lyrical tone to the horror of the war, and you won't be able to stop turning the pages as you begin to learn Ash's secrets and her reasons for leaving behind her husband to fight. And it's Ash you feel for on her Odyssey-like journey, and it's her honest, knowing voice that you cling to and relate to amid the destruction.
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