Essays that changed me: Alison Lurie and ‘When most boys … joined the armed services’

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Essays that Changed Me, Their Harvard by Alison Lurie

Men, Women, and War

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Alison Lurie wrote Their Harvard, an essay included in her 2019 book, an essay collection.* She attended Radcliffe which was the sister school to Harvard, enough distance away to house the school’s poorer relations, as she calls the women undergraduates. Harvard was an all-male school in the forties when she was there. Peasants was another term she uses for women. The novelist and satirist passed in 2020 after a long life. She was in her nineties and had won the pulitzer prize for fiction. The writing is lucid and funny, each word carefully chosen for its meaning and context. The style along with her self-deprecation make the message compelling and humorous, helping me to empathize without pity. Here are two excerpts.

When a female classmate attempted to attract a lecturer’s attention, we raised our eyebrows or shook our heads; we considered such behavior rather pushy, possibly a sign of emotional imbalance.

*

Despite these disadvantages my friends and I were not unhappy in Cambridge. Most of the time we were in a mild state of euphoria. [This after she chronicles that women could not use the libraries, join the dramatic club, work at the Crimson, among others.]

The words emotional imbalance are the stock phrase for men of a certain age–but maybe that applies to men of any age depending on the individual–who cannot or refuse to understand or accept women, or their wives. The first sentence closes the paragraph with the words emotional imbalance in the final position, making them most important. And, it works as a kind of one-liner.

The similarities of the all-male Harvard to my own experience at West Point struck a chord, not so much with the overt mandate to integrate women at the Academy since that was signed into law. No, it has more in common with the sentiment that persisted. West Point, its faculty, and chain of command had been part of an all-male experience and the growing pains for women in the eighties were real. Lurie’s essay in this aspect was entertaining and informative, details about the baggy cotton stockings that left many inches of frozen thigh exposed and how the Radcliffe women were what would now be called “dogs”–ugly , charmless grinds, so unlike the glamorous date from Wellesley or Smith.

The nineteenth-century style uniforms I wore at USMA had little to do with a woman’s body, a body which some degraded as Thunder Thighs or Hudson Hips. In addition to the vestiges of sexism, it was an era of textile antiquity for men and for women. Think of it: no jog bra or athletic bra, compression shorts and fast-dry fabrics inventions of the future. Similarities to Radcliffe were spot on and I cringed and laughed, reading of Lurie’s second-class life.

*

All this was worth sharing by way of a start, on the titular topic Lurie was keen to examine.

Fun, even illuminating, as this was, what changed me or affected me in this essay was her frank discussion of the war and, by contrast, men’s role in it. She begins her sixth paragraph in the first person plural, we, referring as she does to women, the women of Radcliffe.

We also felt lucky because, being female, we were not fighting in Europe or the South Pacific.

The rest of the paragraph details the effects of war on lifestyle, as a child and more broadly, the rations such as gas, meat, butter, and sugar; the tasteless white margarine; the recycled wool. She continues.

Men were superior partly because they were, would be, or–later on and most impressively of all–had been in the war. Most of the boys we had gone out with during high school had joined the armed services, and those we met as freshmen usually vanished at the official draft age of eighteen and a half. . . Harvard Square and Harvard Yard were full of V-12 Navy officers in training, whom I observed as “marching in the rain with frog-like noises,” and of ROTC students whose chant was mocked by us as “Hotsy Totsy, I’m a ROTC.” One of the Radcliffe dorms had been taken over by the Waves*, whose tight, unflattering uniforms and evident discomfort as they drilled on our snowy quad evoked both pity and awe.

*

As it is easy now to forget, we did not know which side was going to win the war. We all knew or knew of someone who was killed in action, and there was always the probability that this list would get longer.

  • Most of the boys we had dated joined the armed services.
  • Those we met as freshmen vanished at draft age, 18.5 years old.
  • We all knew or knew of someone killed in action.
  • Men were superior partly because they had been in the war.
  • Women were lucky they were not fighting.
  • We did not know which side was going to win.

This was another world, a world inhabited by Alison Lurie. The essay was published in the eighties, but still. She saw to it that it was part of this 2019 book, one year before she died. The candor and insights in these statements won’t be found today. Not that I’ve come across.

Things are quite the contrary with many in my New England town who have no connection with the military. None. Do not know a person. It is a reality of numbers, technology, larger population. Of geography. Of President Nixon’s end of the draft in 1973 and the transition to an All Volunteer Force, AVF.* I had to revisit the numbers to make sense of her passage about war.

Who was this woman Alison Lurie who wrote glibly of life 80 years ago, of a country where every male had a stake in its security, its self-defense, its democracy? Will such a world ever be the same? With women on the fighting roster? In the sixties, many colleges made ROTC compulsory for men. There was a time when men, most of them, had a connection to the military because they served, they trained, and they studied military history.

In 1945 when Lurie attended Radcliffe, the U.S. had the largest active fighting force in history with 12 million, over 8 million in the Army. At the height of Vietnam and end of the draft, the active force was 3.5 million with 1.5 million in the Army. Today, we have 1.3 million in the active fighting force with roughly 480,000 in the Army.

Percentage of U.S. Population in Armed Forces peaked in WWII at nearly 9 percent, contrasting the spike above with the green line today, a fraction of a percent. Pew Research

For perspective the Army alone during the second world war was 16 times larger in number than it is today and the population in 1945 was 139 million. With 12 million on active duty in 1945 that is nearly 9 percent of the US population, which included women and children. What Lurie wrote about was true. Today, by contrast, fewer than 1.3 million serve out of 333 million, or 0.39%! Not even half of a percent.

This essay changed me, affected me on such a deep level, that I find myself returning to Lurie’s Radcliffe and her memories of war, of most of the boys going off, of the freshmen vanishing, and my own grasp of a society long gone. In one lifetime, in Lurie’s lifetime, this country has grown more out of touch with its military than ever. Presidents and politicians, and a nation’s people, no longer understand service and the military from intimate knowledge, gained through experience.

And, most Americans simply do not have skin in the game. I am not a fan of the draft and we likely do not need to return to it, but I am worried, alarmed at the numbers. When Lurie attended Radcliffe, women did not fight in war as men did.

Today, nearly all Americans are like the young women of Radcliffe, able to observe military service from a safe distance. Though unlike Lurie, they have little to no connection to the burden carried by most families just generations ago. A few are carrying more and more the burden of the many.

WWII Posters Aimed to Inspire, Encourage Service,
U.S. Dept of Defense. David Vergun, OCT 16, 2019.

*

FOOTNOTES

*Their Harvard. Words and Worlds, from Autobiography to Zippers. Alison Lurie, 2019. Page 16. Washington Independent Review of the collection, July 2019.

*WAVES – Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, the women’s branch of the U.S. Navy Reserve during WWII.

*Hotsy Totsy I’m a ROTC. An admission in her reflection, Lurie also tips her hand, that perhaps like attitudes of academics and elites, the military even at college, has been, is, and will be marginalized.

*WIKI Quote on conscription: “Nixon also saw ending the draft as an effective way to undermine the anti-Vietnam War movement, since he believed affluent youths would stop protesting the war once their own probability of having to fight in it was gone. There was opposition to the all-volunteer notion from both the Department of Defense and Congress, so Nixon took no immediate action towards ending the draft early in his presidency.”

* US Military Strength 1789-1997, Department of Defense Selected Manpower Statistics, Fiscal year 1997. Encourage readers to examine the active size of the U.S. military over time. Astonishing to see the numbers during Civil War, WWI and WWII, Vietnam, on through the present. A understanding of the country’s population also puts this in perspective as the country ended the draft in 1973 at the end of the Vietnam War. The role of technology and evolving strategy / tactics, as well as how women are involved shape how we fight.

*Chapter 6: A Profile of the Modern Military. War and Sacrifice in the Post 9/11 Era, Pew Research Center. OCT 5, 2011.





Jul 8, 2022

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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