Sometimes I forget how foreign military culture can seem until I start telling some story to family and friends. Suddenly one of them will hold up a hand and say, “Wait, wait, what? Back up!” and I’ll have to explain something that sounded, to civilian ears, sensational.
Even though Angie Ricketts is a fellow military wife, I read her memoir, No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife, with the same sort of awed fascination. The infantry subculture is a highly particular one, honed over centuries of existence and strengthened by the bonds of soldiers and families who arguably sacrifice more than any other branch, so there was much that was fascinating and brand-new to me. My own family’s Navy life felt nearly sedate in comparison to the shockingly high op-tempo the Ricketts family and others in the infantry community endured through the last decade-plus of wartime.
Ricketts was an Army “brat” before marrying her Army husband (an elopement on the eve of his deployment to Somalia), and perhaps because of that, she feels utterly comfortable criticizing the Army because you know she’s also proud of it, part of it, for better or worse. It’s sort of the idea that “I can talk crap about my own family, but you better not talk about my family!” that I think is familiar to most of us whose lives have been wedded to the military.
But most of us, alas, are not as funny as Angie Ricketts.
While No Man’s War is a memoir, Ricketts has a novelist’s eye for character along with her muckraker’s compulsion to stir the pot. I laughed out loud at character after character, recognizing types I’d come across both within the military and without. There’s Tammy, a neighbor who once called 911 for an imagined bee sting and “is famous for the phrase, ‘Madam, you have impugned my integrity!,” said apparently in full earnestness. There’s Belinda, “full of shit and steam,” with “hair that’s been teased and processed long past its endurance.”
Ricketts herself serves as an engaging character, likable for the very honesty that sometimes gets her into hot water. In her role as a commander’s wife, she knows the code inside and out, knows exactly when she has to “dispense the Kool-Aid” (go through the motions) and when she can subvert them without getting in too much trouble. It’s refreshing. “I am constantly revved up for more banality,” she says of a long deployment filled with endless FRG meetings and wives’ dinners. (Ruminate on that line awhile; it’s brilliant.)
We host a craft night to make elaborate care packages to send to Iraq. As I stand there contemplating evil thoughts of what I could put into that box, [my friend] Mira tells me she might fill her husband’s box with the piles and piles of shit from his beloved dog that she’s been left to clean up after.
At a Tragedy Assistance presentation, Ricketts watches the depressing images of folded flags and widows in black scroll across the video screen and thinks,
We’ve officially arrived at one of the many moments when I zone out and start imagining the most wildly inappropriate things that could happen. Maybe the chaplain could lift his leg and fart with a loud grunt. Maybe Regina Sweeney will scream the word fellatio! at the top of her lungs.
I couldn’t help but picture that, and my husband glanced up at my chuckling. “What?” he asked. (Oh, nothing!)
Here’s the thing: Given the pace of life Ricketts describes in No Man’s War, this all seems almost completely reasonable. Her husband’s eight deployments–half of them to Iraq and Afghanistan– are long stretches punctuated by his times at home and the births of their three children, which she raises in large part by herself. Raising three children would be a challenge for anyone without the immense added stress of eight deployments, but there you go. On top of that is her fear for his safety and, perhaps more pressingly, their marriage; he is commanding six hundred soldiers in Afghanistan and making life-or-death decisions for other people, some of which haunt the both of them later. She writes movingly of her empathy and horror upon hearing of the deaths of three Afghan children in a strike ordered by her husband. She is honest about the occasional Xanax in her purse, about the “black soul” she develops toward the end of a long and grueling deployment.
Of course one [civilian] counselor is present in the next stall when I break down and sob at a volume that frightens even me. No, don’t you dare hug me, lady. For reasons beyond the fact that you didn’t wash your hands. My soul just turned black two minutes ago, but how could I tell you that?
This is gutsy stuff from an officer’s wife, stuff that people need to hear and that we should be reading. A lot of it reminds me of stories in Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, except as memoir Ricketts has to pin it all on herself; there is no dodging the first-person pronouns on every page. There’s no comfy veil of fiction to hide behind and no freedom to make stuff up when you don’t have the answer.
I don’t know what required more bravery, living through 22 years as an army wife or writing about it, no-holds-barred. I do know that No Man’s War is a book I’ll be recommending, to people within the military and without, for a long time.
Ricketts, Angela. No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife. Counterpoint, 2014.
Buy No Man’s War here.