Review: Even the Women Must Fight
During a recent discussion about Brad Murray’s No Contact, the issue of dealing with female characters in a game set during the Vietnam War came up. To satiate my own curiosity, I started researching women’s roles during the war. The beauty of Google is that sometimes you find things you didn’t expect to find. In this case, I found stories about women from the Vietnamese side, namely the long-haired warriors and other volunteers who did everything from road building to fire the anti-aircraft guns. During this research I came across the book, Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam.
Not only do I recommend this book for people who love history and women’s stories, but I also think it makes a great book for game designers and writers, especially ones who would like to include more female characters into their games. The book does, in my opinion, an excellent job of portraying the internal struggles of women as they deal with a society that views them one way but requires them to act another, especially in times of war. In addition, it explores the frequent revisionism that happens after wars, where men’s valor and bravery are often embraced and celebrated while women’s contributions are often reframed if not discarded.
By the time of the American War (what we call the Vietnam War), the country had a complex and sometimes contradictory view of women. The book’s title is named after a Vietnamese proverb, “when war strikes close to home, even the women must fight.” There’s a long history of women warriors in Vietnam including the Trung sisters, two women from a rural military family who lead a rebellion against the Chinese and Trieu Thi Trinh, (Lady Trieu), rumored to be 9-feet tall with yard-long breasts she threw over her shoulders while she fought against the Chinese. More recently, some believe hundreds of thousands of women were instrumental in the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu.
This reality of warrior women contrasts with other beliefs about the proper place of women in Vietnamese society. As the book explains, confucian beliefs often asked for obedience from women, first to their fathers, then their husbands, and finally to their eldest son. Daughters-in-law were often expected to make their mothers-in-law happy. An importance was placed on male children, not only as a way of continuing the family line but also as a way of ensuring that women would be taken care of in their old age, especially as they were expected to not remarry if widowed.
Layered on top of this were the beliefs brought to Vietnam by the French, both in terms of how they viewed women and how they viewed the native Vietnamese people as a whole. A number of the women relate how it seemed that the French were willing to allow a number of discriminatory practices against women to continue under their rule, even as women in France enjoyed rights they did not have.
Finally, we have Ho Chi Min and his beliefs that women should be involved in the political sphere. For a number of women in Vietnam, this gave them hope that they would be able to live a different life than the one offered to them under the traditional beliefs. However, as with Confucianism and French doctrines, this was a foreign idea as well, brought in as part of a push towards Communism.
These varying and sometimes contradictory views of women mean that understanding women’s service and reactions to their service can be complex and difficult to understand. Women served for a number of reasons, from a desire to follow in the footsteps of the traditional tales of women warriors to a belief that women’s emancipation would follow victory to a pure sense of adventure.
Immediately after the war, while there were many stories about the men’s acts of bravery and valor during the war, the women’s stories often went untold. The book presents a few reasons for this, including male control over many of the media outlets, that male bravery is seen as something to embrace while female bravery makes them less feminine, a desire by some women to forget their service and move towards a more normal life, and guilt by some of the men over the sacrifices made by women during the war.
Those stories that did present the female story often reframed the women as being more sexualized or traditionally feminine than they were. In my studies, I’ve seen similar revisions of history after other events. The key here is that the war is recent enough that it’s possible to talk to the people who served but enough time has passed that many documents about the war are available.
Not only is the book an interesting study in understanding a foreign culture in terms of its own culture and how these complex feelings on the role of women in society might lead to their invisibility in the stories produced after the war, but it provides a lot of great information for creating strong female characters. The book repeatedly talks about how the experiences of the women survivors are different from those of the men. Many of them spent years fighting in remote jungles, often catching malaria, disfigured by injuries, and suffering from PTSD. While many of them fought in hopes they would be able to have a traditional life of wife and mother, the long years of war left them undesirable to many of the men.
Some decided that their inability to find a husband wouldn’t stop them from attempting to have a child. Artificial insemination was too expensive for most, so they had to find men who were willing to have sex with them in a society that frowned upon such relations. The number of children born this way lead to changes in laws and practices that led to these children being accepted as part of the village in ways they were not before.
Those who found husbands often faced another difficult decision. Exposure to chemicals during the war, particularly Agent Orange, increased the odds for many that they would give birth to a child with birth defects. Some decided the risk was too great and went childless in a society that judged women on their ability to have children.
Overall, this book is a great window into what is often the secret world of women. Many of the issues faced by the women, both during and after the war, are discussed in a mostly frank manner, although it is important to note that the interviews were conducted in the presence of a Vietnamese official. There’s a diversity in experiences in the book to show that the women had differing views about the war and their role in it as well as the ongoing role of women in society. It provides a number of tales of heroism, bravery, and leadership from women. Many of the war stories compare and contrast service experiences of men and women. Finally, it shows how and why women’s contributions to war efforts are often made invisible after the conflict ends.
Finally, if this is a topic you are interested in learning more about, the book has an excellent bibliography and also discusses some fictional accounts, including some movies.