• Iphigenia in Afghanistan: Notes on Women and War

    Paisley Rekdal

    Spring 2021

    “Do not destroy me before my time, for it is sweet to look upon the light, and do not force me to visit scenes below,” Iphigenia begs her father, Agamemnon, having learned that he plans to sacrifice her to Artemis. The Greek ships are assembled in Aulis’s harbor but are unable to sail to Troy because Artemis refuses to let the sea winds blow. One of Agamemnon’s men shot and killed the goddess’s sacred deer, and for payment, Artemis has now demanded a sacrifice. The sacrifice must be a young virgin, and so Agamemnon has lured his teenage daughter Iphigenia to Aulis on the pretext that she will marry Achilles. Everyone knows there will be no marriage, of course: Euripides’s play is about the capitulation to one’s fate and duty, which is why Iphigenia—horrified at first by her father’s plan—finally relents, urging her mother, Clytemnestra, to accept her death, cheered (if that is the word) that on her “the whole of mighty Hellas looks; on [her] the passage over the sea depends; on [her] the sack of Troy.”1

    I first read Euripides’s play in college, where I was profoundly irritated by Iphigenia’s low-grade filial whining. Now I see I missed something. When I read the play again today, Iphigenia no longer appears as a wilting teen who relents to her father out of self-sacrificing misogyny. I see instead a cannier girl, one who rebuffs her mother’s despair and Achilles’s offers of help, which Iphigenia knows will only lead to more violence among the Greeks. “All this deliverance will my death insure, and my fame for setting Hellas free will be a happy one,” she insists instead to the crowd of soldiers that gape at her, stunned by her declaration. Iphigenia doesn’t just consent; she claims agency through her self-sacrifice, declaring that the Greeks’ future victory at Troy will also be hers, the war overwritten with her own image. 

    In poems of war, we look first to the narratives of male soldiers, but Iphigenia reminds me that the costs and even authorship of battle are more complexly shared. Those who begin and end the story of Troy’s fall with the Iliad forget the ways that Iphigenia’s sacrifice both initiates the war and also casts a moral shadow over its legacy. This is something my high school Latin teacher tried to teach me the afternoon she played Michael Cacoyannis’s movie Iphigenia for my senior class, how particularly enraptured she’d been by the performance of Irene Papas, who played Clytemnestra. My teacher freeze-framed the video to point out the black stare Papas shot at the Greek boats as they pulled away from Aulis’s shores. “You know what comes next,” my teacher said, turning to us with a raised eyebrow. I didn’t. Euripides’s play ends on Agamemnon wishing his wife well, telling Clytemnestra that as parents “they may be counted happy,” as Iphigenia now lives among the gods and goddesses. But in college I would read Aeschylus’s Oresteia, which picks up where Iphigenia in Aulis and the Iliad drop off, centering on Clytemnestra’s plot to murder Agamemnon in part for revenge for her daughter. And after that, their son Orestes will later not only kill his mother in order to avenge Agamemnon’s murder but be tormented by the furies for it. Iphigenia in Aulis is but one moment in a complicated and brutal unfurling of war that extends from Mycenae to Troy then back again to Greece. The war abroad begets the war at home: there is no end to what Iphigenia accepts and initiates in Aulis. 

    When I first began thinking about this essay, I’d imagined portraying Iphigenia as one of the many female victims of war—a nubile girl slaughtered to satisfy an army’s blood lust—but I see it’s more nuanced if I read Iphigenia’s self-sacrifice as a way of allying herself with and also claiming her father’s martial project. Though perhaps this reading, too, gets something wrong, an anachronistic revision of a text whose slipperiness only accidentally allows for my feminist interpretation. Still, the more I parse Iphigenia’s lines, the more the play muddies my understanding of what constitutes victimization and complicity; it certainly transforms my idea of the Trojan War’s timeline. Where does a war begin and end? And, when it comes to the presence of women in war, are women ever and only passive subjects?

    Outside of literature, women of course are not war’s passive subjects. Throughout history, women have been soldiers for many different nations and conflicts, whether disguised as men or as legitimate recruits. Women have been doctors, nurses, pilots, reporters, aides-de-camp, sex workers, spies, and code breakers. And yet the literature of war, especially its poetry, would suggest that women were primarily important as domestic witnesses. Even poems written by nurses during World Wars I and II, such as Mary Borden’s “At the Somme: The Song of the Mud” or Eva Dobell’s “Night Duty,” tend to focus on male suffering, not on their own medical actions in the field. This is hardly surprising, considering the numbers of men versus women who endured combat, but this general absence of women’s poetry about war reinforces our belief that war primarily impacts male soldiers, and thus that war’s consequences may somehow be limited to male survivors. This problem is only exacerbated in the arts by the ways that representations and personal experiences of war had themselves become implicitly gendered. During World War I in particular, the shadow of suspect femininity hovered over British soldiers returning from battle traumatized. Labeled “hysterical” by the doctors who treated them, both soldiers and literary editors learned to reject any portrayals of wartime experience that carried with them the slightest whiff of emasculation.2 Culturally, the literature of war began to shape itself specifically around the male experience, meaning that women’s narratives off and on the battlefield were quietly suppressed. Finally, while men turned to poetry in droves, women more often turned to personal essays, diaries, and memoirs, their own poems reinforcing their status as sympathetic bystanders, participants only insofar as they aided or observed male agency.3

    Iphigenia in Aulis, then, raises another question for me: If women do see themselves as implicitly part of war’s project, then where are their poems? Or, better yet: If certain women do not take a dim view of war overall, as Iphigenia doesn’t, then how do they represent it and, by extension, themselves? 

    Finding war poems written by women that are anything but decidedly antiwar is difficult, in large part because modern and contemporary anthologies privilege that perspective. War poems by both men and women tend to be didactic and elegiac and, especially since World War I and the decisive influence of Wilfred Owen, they overwhelmingly skew toward the pacific. This is not just because of the horrific nature of modern combat itself but also the effect of having so many war poems written in the first person by soldiers; in that, our readerly identification with these poets makes the narrators inherently sentimental subjects. If women are themselves to be framed as more than sympathetic witnesses, they themselves must be wounded or imperiled, which is probably why, when I tell friends I’m writing about women and war, they assume I’m writing about women who’ve been raped, women who’ve been taken captive, women who’ve lost sons, fathers, or brothers in battle. That’s certainly the majority of anthologized poems about women and war, just as the majority of war poems written by women focus on the social, not personal, consequences of war. 

    One of the earliest female-authored war poems is by the Sumerian poet/priestess Enheduanna, whose “Lament to The Spirit of War” includes lines like these:

           You hack everything down in battle. . . .

    . . .

    Like a fiery monster you fill the land with poison.

    As thunder you growl over the earth,

    trees and bushes collapse before you.

    You are blood rushing down a mountain,

    Spirit of hate, greed and anger,

    . . .

    You triumph over all our rites. 

    Who can explain why you go on so?4

    The contemporary reader of poetry is trained to expect war poems that are critical of war; we may even look askance now at poems that express martial values positively, even enthusiastically. For this reason, it may be doubly unsettling to come across a pro-war poem written by a woman who has, comparatively speaking, less to lose than a male soldier. Instead, we anthologize the poems of women who take on the comfortable role of elegist, something you might see in “Wartime April” by the French poet Cécile Périn: 

           The women wear black veils,

    The girls a grown-up dignity. 

    . . . 

    What do you say to a woman crying?

    . . .

    We sit, and know the men are dying.5

    But what about women who not only supported the wars their nations engaged in but themselves also fought or were killed? I began considering this specific question while living in Hanoi, after spending an afternoon at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. I found the museum deeply affecting, not least because my own country lacks a museum devoted to its women but because of its prominent displays of the women who fought for and were sometimes viciously tortured on behalf of their country. Women may be absent in the American and European poetry anthologies of World Wars I and II, but they appear in large numbers in poems about the Vietnam War written both by Americans and Vietnamese: as bar girls and casualties, yes, but also as combatants. This is due to the number of female warriors for both the North and the South. In 1986, the North Vietnamese Government recorded the deaths of 250,000 female fighters, on top of which another 40,000 women reportedly suffered disabilities as the result of torture, and 36,000 women had been imprisoned.6 While the exact numbers may be contested, there’s no question that women played a significant if sometimes unacknowledged role in battle, something the Vietnamese poet and reporter Lâm Thị Mỹ Dạ points out in her poem “Bomb Crater Sky.” Here is her poem in full, in Martha Collins’s and Thúy Đinh’s translation: 

           They say that you, a road builder

    Had such love for our country

    You rushed out and waved your torch

    To call the bombs down on yourself

    And save the road for the troops

    As my unit passed on that worn road

    The bomb crater reminded us of your story

    Your grave is radiant with bright-colored stones

    Piled high with love for you, a young girl

    As I looked in the bomb crater where you died

    The rain water became a patch of sky

    Our country is kind

    Water from the sky washes pain away

    Now you lie down deep in the earth

    As the sky lay down in that earthen crater

    At night your soul sheds light

    Like the dazzling stars

    Did your soft white skin

    Become a bank of white clouds?

    By day I pass under a sun-flooded sky

    And it is your sky

    And that anxious, wakeful disc

    Is it the sun, or is it your heart

    Lighting my way

    As I walk down the long road?

    The name of the road is your name

    Your death is a young girl's patch of blue sky

    My soul is lit by your life

    And my friends, who never saw you

    Each has a different image of your face7

    This isn’t exactly Iphigenia’s triumphant self-sacrifice: the Viet Cong troops are unaware of the girl’s actions, and the girl herself claims no authority over the war’s outcome. Instead, the girl becomes an invisible, if communal, sacrifice to preserve “the road for the troops.” Only the road carries her name now—or perhaps she carried the name of the road. The poem’s translation suggests both possibilities, which reinforces the girl’s essential lack of identity. In fact, the girl may not even have wanted to sacrifice herself. As Lâm notes, the girl’s death is known about only through the reportage of strangers: “they say that you . . . / Had such a love for our country / You rushed out and waved your torch” (italics mine). The poem is an elegy that can be read as propaganda, though with that “they say” added to the poem, Lâm slyly undercuts some of the poem’s patriotism. What if the young girl, in reality, had been bombed by accident as she fled her village, her death an incidental and not deliberate martyrdom? And what if her death has now been turned into a wartime fantasy, a bit of folklore to bolster national pride and courage? Is this why her face must be privately imagined by those who never saw her, her own death only “a young girl’s patch of blue sky”?

    Lâm’s focus on the sacrifice and bravery of a young woman is not unusual for a nation that was, relatively speaking, used to the presence of women warriors. One of Vietnam’s most famous war memorials is composed of ruined plane parts heaped in a house-high stack in the courtyard of the Vietnam Military History Museum. Propped on a cement slab, this memorial is a hulking mass of metals, scorched and scarred and dented, the planes’ windshields haphazarded with cracks. Planes from both the French and American wars have been composed into one twisted tower before which a giant black-and-white photo of a young woman, a Viet Cong fighter, has been propped. The fighter, a teenage girl, drags a piece of a plane wing with rope down the glassy sand of a beach. 

    Like Lâm’s poem, the sculpture reframes the war from a female perspective, in this case arguing that even a young female communist, in defense of her nation, has power enough to bring down the greatest militaries on earth. It is an artwork of both propaganda and history, as poems of war themselves are, but though both Lâm’s poem and this memorial purport to celebrate Vietnam’s egalitarian virtues espoused by Communism, they also rely on the sexist belief in women’s physical inferiority, our fear of confrontation and uselessness in combat. Women soldiers may be like their male compatriots, these artworks suggest, but they are not and never will be the same. 

    Interestingly, this “likeness” appears as a problem in the poems of female Soviet soldiers, too, who, like their Vietnamese counterparts, have a more complicated history of soldiering than women in the West. Russia in particular has a long tradition of including women in its armed forces, and its literature reflects the many roles that female warriors have held—from the medieval period to the Napoleonic wars. While social acceptance of women’s military service may have fluctuated, by the 1930s and ’40s many examples of “militarized women” existed in Russian history.8 Certainly, by World War II, though women were not expected or even encouraged to enlist, it was not unusual to find women fighting at the front. Such was the case for the Soviet poet Yulia Drunina, a young woman who fought at the front in Belarus and Latvia during World War II, and left active duty in 1944 to devote herself to writing. A popular poet in the Soviet Union, Drunina devoted herself to both Soviet literary institutions and veterans affairs until her death, by suicide, in 1991. 

        Unlike other women and women soldier-poets of her age, Drunina’s poetic portraits specifically focused on her own experiences at the front, not on the effects of war on male soldiers or on women and children. In this, Drunina’s poems are unique in both Russian and war literature, and often focus on her evolving understanding of her gender identity within the context of war, as you can see in these lines from a short, popular poem “The Unharvested Rye Sways”: 

           The unharvested rye sways.

    Soldiers march through it.

    And we girls, resembling boys,

    Also march.

    No, those aren’t huts burning.

    That’s my youth on fire.

    Girls, resembling boys,

    March through the war.9

    Paisley Rekdal’s most recent collection of poems is Nightingale (Copper Canyon Press 2019). Her newest book of nonfiction, Appropriate: A Provocation (W.W. Norton 2021), examines cultural appropriation in literature.

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