I originally posted this review on Epinions.com on June 16, 2005. It appears here as/is.
About two weeks ago, I was in the Fort Belvoir thrift shop with my husband and my mother-in-law, looking for assorted junk/treasures. My house is mostly appointed in dorm/Kmart decor and I’m trying to gussy it up a bit. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any home furnishing treasures on that day, but I did find a buttload of interesting books. One of the books that I found was Mary Edwards Wertsch’s 1991 book, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress. Well, I happen to be a military brat twice over. I was born into Air Force bratdom almost 33 years ago and then I married into Army bratdom almost three years ago. I figured this book was aimed at an audience consisting of people like me, and at $2.00, it was a steal. I took it home.
The first thing I noticed when I first ran across Military Brats is that it’s a sizable book. Right off the bat, I got the idea that Mary Edwards Wertsch had a lot to say to people like me… and people like her. Wertsch is herself a military brat, as well as an investigative journalist. Military Brats was her first book; since it was written fifteen years ago, I couldn’t tell you if she’s written others.
The next thing I noticed was the introduction, written by one of my favorite authors, Pat Conroy. Some of you may know that Conroy is himself a military brat. Those of you who have read his fiction also know that Conroy’s military upbringing affected him profoundly. Born the son of a Marine fighter pilot, Pat Conroy’s childhood was fraught with moves to new towns, and that meant that he had to constantly learn to fit in with an ever changing peer group. Conroy was also a victim of child abuse. He never lets his readers forget it, not that I fault him for that. In fact, one of the reasons why I love Pat Conroy’s writing so much is because it really speaks to me. I can identify very much with his stories. The Great Santini, a novel about growing up as a military brat, was perhaps Conroy’s breakthrough novel. Mary Edwards Wertsch includes snippets from The Great Santini throughout her book, Military Brats, for it was the film version of The Great Santini that gave her the idea for this book.
Next, I started to read this massive book. It consists of twelve long chapters, each taking on an aspect of growing up a military brat. At the beginning of the book, Mary Edwards Wertsch writes
Warrior society is characterized by a rigid authoritarian structure, frequently mirrored inside its families; extreme mobility; a great deal of father absence; isolation and alienation from the civilian community; an exceedingly strict class system; a very high incidence of alcoholism. which also suggests possibly high rates of family violence; a deeply felt sense of mission; and, not least, an atmosphere of constant preparation for war, with the accompanying implication for every family that on a moment’s notice the father can be sent to war, perhaps never to be seen again. p. xiii
And then in Military Brats, Wertsch goes on to address each of the points she lists about the experience of being a military brat. For this book, Wertsch interviewed eighty military brats, five of whom were siblings of other interviewees, and all of whom were well into adulthood. She also interviewed social workers, teachers, military parents, physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, historians other scholars (p. xii). After reading this book, I could tell that Wertsch had indeed done her homework and tried to get many different perspectives on the military brat phenomenon.
Edwards also explains why she uses the term “military brat”,
…a word about the term military brat. Of the eighty military brats interviewed for this book, only five objected to the term– two because they disliked a characterization they felt was imposed on them by the military, one because she did not like the implications of “brat,” and two because they had always been told to say “Navy junior” instead. The rest all said they identified with military brat and used it themselves; to them it is a term of affectionate humor as well as identification. p. xv
I really appreciated Wertsch’s preface. She did a good job of explaining the premise behind writing Military Brats. The fact that she is herself a military brat certainly gave her credibility and a wealth of personal stories to share about her own experiences as a military brat. I also thought the passages from The Great Santini were a nice touch, although they made me want to re-read the novel for the hundredth time. Wertsch also took pains in individually addressing the experiences of both the sons and daughters of military men; and yes, she does explain why she focused on the children of men in the military. Again, this book was written in 1990 and published in 1991, and the brats that Wertsch interviewed were all well into adulthood. The fact that Wertsch addressed only the issue of being the child of a military man made sense because most people who choose to serve in the military are men; that was especially true when Wertsch was growing up, even if it’s less true nowadays. If Wertsch had addressed the plight of children growing up with moms in the military, this book would have no doubt been even larger and more comprehensive than it is now. It’s already a formidable book.
Anyone who is familiar with military life knows there’s a class system in place that is different from the ones most civilians know; that is, the enlisted man’s world versus the officer’s world. Wertsch addresses the differences between someone growing up the child of an officer and an enlisted man. She also addresses how military families view the different branches. Again, Military Brats is a very well-written, comprehensive book that will no doubt offer food for thought for anyone who grew up a military brat.
That said, let me offer a few other insights. Wertsch has certainly tackled an interesting and important topic. It’s also a very complex subject and although I got the sense that Wertsch tried very hard to speak to all military brats, I’m afraid that she doesn’t in some cases. At times, this book is a bit stereotypical as Wertsch describes fathers who are overly strict, abusive, alcoholic, apathetic, and demanding. Let me state for the record that I am married to an Army officer who has yet to show me any of the aforementioned negative qualities.
Moreover, Wertsch seems to focus only on the bad things about being a military brat, only occasionally offering insights as to why being a military brat might be an advantage for someone. And, it seemed to me, that the few times Wertsch offered positives about being a military brat, it was almost always purely by accident. As I read this book, it made me feel sad for my unborn children, although they will likely have an atypical military brat upbringing similar to mine. I agree that being a military brat has its negatives, but it also has its positives. I don’t think that Wertsch really addressed many of the good parts about being a military brat; however, she did address most of the bad aspects. Unfortunately, that makes Military Brats seem very negative and it may make some readers think that all military brats are damaged specifically by their experiences growing up surrounded by the military. Certainly, the military brat lifestyle is not always easy, but I don’t believe that it’s always damaging. I can certainly think of worse environments outside the military in which a person might spend their formative years.
The fact that I am a military brat who had an “atypical” military upbringing brings up another point. I was born late in my father’s Air Force career, the youngest of four daughters. After almost 22 years of service, my dad retired a Lieutenant Colonel when I was almost six years old. He had traveled many times throughout his career and went to Vietnam a couple of times. I never knew this aspect of being a military brat, although my three older sisters did. My father, like so many other military men, is an alcoholic and he does suffer from some post traumatic stress disorder. At times, he was abusive to me. I can relate to military brats who have dealt with being a child of an alcoholic. But when I was eight years old, my parents moved to where they live now– the Tidewater area of Virginia, an area that is steeped in military culture and surrounded by military installations. I stayed in the same school system from third grade until I graduated high school. Because I was born late in my dad’s career, I missed out on some of the trademark experiences of being a military brat– moving around frequently and living without my father. My father was ALWAYS home when I was growing up because he owned his own business and worked out of his house. But he is most definitely a military man and I am most definitely his brat.
Perhaps when I was a child, there weren’t so many thirty-nine year olds becoming fathers, but nowadays it’s becoming a lot more common. Consider the fact that I am now married to an Army Lieutenant Colonel. He has children from his first marriage. They have to deal with his absence, but it’s not because he’s in the military. Instead, it’s because my husband divorced his children’s mother and she chose to move them to Arizona, a state with only one Army post located many miles from their home. Wertsch didn’t really address the plight of the brats who grew up without their fathers not because of the military, but because of divorce; but again, I guess that would have made Military Brats entirely too long.
My husband is about to turn forty-one and we are trying to start our own family against all odds. If I manage to get pregnant, our child or children will probably grow up much the same way I did– military brats, but without the trademark military experience of moving around constantly or living without their father. My husband expects to retire in a few short years. I suspect that with as much divorce as we have in the United States, a lot of children will experience being military brats in so-called “second families”, separated from their siblings. Even if they don’t end up growing up in “second families”, they may simply grow up like I did, the product of a pregnancy that occurred later in their parents’ lives. I think it would be interesting to see a book written about military brats like me and my husband’s children, kids who have always been steeped in military culture, but for one reason or another, never had the globe trotting, country crossing experience of the stereotypical military brat.
Alas, Wertsch didn’t speak to military brats like me. And, while this book offers some truisms about what life was like for older military brats, it doesn’t offer insight into what military life is like now. Of course, this book is fifteen years old, but even in 1990, things were starting to change from the way they were back when Wertsch’s father and my father were in the military. I do think it would be great to see an updated version of this book, because it is an interesting subject that affects a lot of people.
Despite my minor criticisms, I would certainly recommend this book to any military brat. I found this book fascinating and I could relate to a lot of it. Even though I think that Mary Edwards Wertsch neglected to discuss a few types of military brats, she does manage to write about most of us. This book is well-written, well-researched, and written by someone who knows her subject personally. Unfortunately, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress may be hard to find because it was written so long ago.
ETA: I wrote this review in 2005 and we had expected Bill to retire in 2010. Thanks to making the O6 list, he got four extra years and finished in 2014.
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