Friday, May 24, 2019

Sisters in Arms: Remembering the League of Wives

We’ve all seen our share of Vietnam movies. Once the war was finally over, Hollywood released a flood of them. There were ambitious ones that dropped us into the middle of the fighting—The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon—and tried to convey the physical and emotional realities of that faraway war. There were films like Born on the Fourth of July (based on the true story of Sgt. Ron Kovic) that highlighted revolts against the war by young men furious at what their own government was asking of them. The poignant Coming Home focused on the home front, where the wife of a Marine captain evolved during his tour of duty into a more independent woman. In finding her own path, she fell in love with a young vet who’d left Vietnam a paraplegic. This heartfelt 1978 drama won Oscars for stars Jane Fonda and Jon Voigt.

The physical and emotional costs of Vietnam are also underscored in a new book by my friend and colleague, Heath Hardage Lee. She’s currently rocking the media with The League of Wives, a well-researched history of the loyal military spouses who waited—as much as six years—for their husbands to come marching home from captivity by the Viet Cong. Here’s the book’s subtitle: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home from Vietnam. As this suggests, these women (over a hundred in all) turned to activism as a way to alert the world to their husbands’ plight. Their men, most of them Navy and Air Force pilots, had been shot down and incarcerated, often in the notorious Hanoi Hilton, where torture was rampant, medical services were few, and (in violation of the Geneva Convention) oversight by the International Red Cross was not allowed. Even a basic accounting of prisoners’ whereabouts was denied the worried wives and family members back home.

What makes The League of Wives so striking is that it’s about women well accustomed to following the rules. Politically and socially conservative, they had been carefully taught that the best way to support their spouses was to dress nicely, respect military rank, and steer clear of politics. Once their husbands were shot out of the sky, these women—still unclear as to whether they were wives or widows—were instructed by the top brass to remain tight-lipped and allow politicians to sort out the problem. But, as months and years passed, staying quiet seemed like the wrong strategy. Presidential administrations largely paid lip-service to their concerns, and the military actually toyed with the idea of denying them access to their husbands’ accumulating paychecks. That’s when the women, many of whom had young children to raise, banded together and began making noise.

The wives quickly discovered the value of the mass media in putting their husbands’ plight before the world. Soon they were sending delegations overseas to make their case to diplomats meeting in Paris and Stockholm. And, much as they shrank from affiliating with the anti-war movement, they took advantage of its connections with Hanoi in order to ensure a flow of mail to and from their captive spouses. When the men finally returned in 1973, they found their wives had developed strong new capabilities. Even the once-shyest was now comfortable in the corridors of power.

The evolution of these women would make, of course, for a fascinating movie. That’s why the very enterprising Reese Witherspoon has just optioned Heath’s book for a cinematic adaptation. Which should make for a “hidden figures” type movie I look forward to seeing.

On Memorial Day—Monday, May 27—Heath Hardage Lee will be speaking at the Richard Nixon Library as part of a program honoring the wives and mothers of American POWs. Here’s more info: 

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