Difficult Truths: A Review of Anuradha Bhagwati’s Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience

Anuradha Bhagwati is not a dude-bro. She doesn’t defend “Murica” with blind reverence. She does not fit the common trope of an American Marine. She could, however, outrun and outshoot many of those who do. But these skills probably did not help the horrifying truth that, during her service in the Marine Corps, she rarely had the support of those who held power over her. Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience left this reader disarmed, and Bhagwati’s frank and honest depiction of her military experience brought back memories of similar uncomfortable situations in my own service. Memoirs like this expose the grit and misogyny embedded in modern military service. This one in particular, though, offers solutions that result from dogged determination and diligence.

(Courtesy Simon & Schuster)

In the introductory remarks to Writing the South through the Self: Explorations in Southern Autobiography, John Inscoe highlights memoirists “are often well aware of these tensions between the uniqueness and typicality of their life stories,” and points out how, as a result, the author often feels the need to justify why their stories matter to a broader audience.1 Anuradha Bhagwati’s military experience, on its surface, could easily be dismissed as atypical. She’s a brown bisexual woman, Harvard- and Yale-educated, and generally unpopular among her peers. That’s not how many white Americans picture an officer in the US Marine Corps. Her experiences, circumstances of service, personality, and ambitions all offer teachable moments that transcend her narrow demographic. Her personal life and her activism became indistinguishable in ways that any person passionate about their profession will recognize.

The memoir follows Bhagwati through three periods of her life where she weighed what she wanted, needed, or expected against her uncomfortable realities. In the first section, as a young adult navigating her sexuality, Bhagwati illustrates the ways her parents shaped a life-long devotion to perfection, “My parents made it clear to me that my grades mattered more than anything else in the world.” On top of their expectation of intellectual perfection, they consistently pointed out her physical shortcomings, too fat and too hairy, and berated her when she expressed interests outside of their expectations, like basketball and girls. The second section offers an account of her military experience as an officer in the US Marine Corps. She reflects on what real leadership looked like in practice; the women she commanded who “were changing the game for all of us,” and the leaders who failed her when she voiced her concerns about sexual assault and the constant harassment women Marines faced in combat and in the supposed safety of garrison duty. The double standards she encountered as a woman in a male-dominated organization ultimately convinced her to leave the Corps, and the third section of the book follows her post-service life and career, when Bhagwati uses her voice and her service to demand action within the military. She describes a post-military life where she consistently navigates PTSD, depression, and anger towards a military machine that seems unbothered by their long history of men traumatizing the women serving alongside them. She uses her own pain as motivation for founding the Service Women’s Action Network, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for the female victims of sexual assault. When she eventually leaves SWAN, she finds peace and healing in yoga and concludes with cautious optimism about what yoga can do for veterans.

Bhagwati pinpoints how and why her voice has been heard by so many. “Being an ex-Marine gave me cover when talking about things like sexual violence in the military,” she argues, because “trolls had refrained thus far from sending me rape and death threats” the likes of which civilian women encountered online when speaking their minds.2 The multiple points at which her life intersects with the lived experiences of others makes her voice all the more important. In a market historically saturated with top-down introspectives of ranking elderly white men, Bhagwati’s military memoir departs from traditional and over-assigned favorites like Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel, and William Alexander Percey’s Lanterns on the Levee. And while there is still historical value in the opinions and experiences of white men who fought wars, Bhagwati joins the ranks of Shoshana Johnson and other women of color with valuable contributions to make on how the modern American military can improve and be a part of the effort to dismantle discrimination based on gender, race, religion, or sexual identity.

As a personal memoir, Bhagwati’s work stands out for its uncompromising appraisal of command failures at the company, battalion, base, and corps level. When the enemy you fear isn’t a member of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, but a misogynist Marine Corps officer with the entirety of his chain of command actively protecting his violent outbursts and assaults, Bhagwati demonstrates the limits of agency and goodwill with a thick description of navigating a career that evoked love and hate. She loved being a Marine, and that is important to keep in mind as she harangues the inaction of what most would call “A Few Good Men.” Perhaps, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character in that film, we can’t handle the truth. It’s easier to think in terms of black or white. Love or hate. Straight or gay. In Unbecoming, readers are not afforded this luxury. Her chapter on MCMAP (Marine Corps Martial Arts Program) training at Quantico offers an initial appraisal of Lieutenant Colonel George Bristol as “this large, sadistic monster of a man.” Pages later, she admits “I wanted his approval. He was getting to me.”3 Her depiction of this relationship might surprise a reader with no military experience, but it’s not a new story. Military training often builds in elements to tear you down and build you back up stronger, faster, and deadlier. Strong leaders are often strict and demanding leaders and Bhagwati’s devotion to a man who used cruelty to train his Marines is not unique. What is different here, and what is different for every woman who has ever raised her right hand, put on a uniform, and entered a life overwhelmingly outnumbered by men, is how sexual assault and harassment became a part of this process as well.

As an officer working within the command structure, Bhagwati’s professional obligations included holding Marines accountable for their actions. As a woman, this included listening to Marines who suffered assault, intimidation, and rumors. She advocated for their safety. Outside looking in, it’s easy to assume that Bhagwati should not have been singled out as an advocate just because of her gender identification. She makes it clear, however, that if she did not hold the accused accountable, no one else would. Even more, if the accused was a fellow officer, there would be no consequences. If the accused was a noncommissioned officer there might be a shuffling of personnel in an attempt to sweep charges of sexual assault under the rug. Bhagwati lifts that rug and all of the dirty secrets it hides.

The book moves beyond military service to investigate a post-service life in a post-9/11 world. Bhagwati endured trauma but was never deployed to a combat zone. She returned to civilian life, attended graduate school, and navigated life as a veteran who did not look like a veteran. Her trauma came from countless injuries and insults from the same men who held her professional life in their hands. Chapter 10, titled “Unraveling,” provides such an accurate description of VA Medical Center failures that I cried as I recalled the moment I gave up on ever getting the care I deserved and required.

I sat down with a chubby fiftysomething administrative aide. She stared into a computer screen, mindlessly dishing out a government mandated survey for new veterans, a verbal back and forth about why I was here and what may have screwed my seamless reintegration back into society. The exchange was about as warm and comforting as a military pap smear. The pace, the coldness, the automaton-like manner of this woman was starting to mess with the fragile sense Eli had built up in me that everything was going to be all right.4

For me, it had been a male doctor. He sat at his computer, eating his lunch while asking me questions. He never once looked at me. He knew I had been diagnosed with PTSD upon my arrival stateside from a yearlong deployment to Iraq. I left with assurances that referrals would be made to clinics that could help. Two months later, I got one referral in the mail. It was for a smoking cessation class. That was the end of my own relationship with the VA.

We both seem to have struck a balance with our individual love/hate relationship with the military. It comes in the form of activism for the voices unheard. It comes in finding peace inside of yourself, even when surrounded by chaos and pressure and deadlines. The second half of Unbecoming chronicles the creation of SWAN (Service Women’s Action Network) and their work holding the Pentagon accountable for allowing a culture that ignored sexual assault. Bhagwati highlights the disconnect between veteran and civilian organizations that seemed to share the same goals but no common language or frames of reference. When she left SWAN in 2014, she recentered her focus on healing. She walked away from the Marines, veterans, and activism directed toward women veterans; at the same time, she walked away from a 14-year relationship with a former Marine. In her quest for peace, she found happiness. She found yoga and a new means of helping others heal. She found love for herself and this revelation made my own heart soar. She’s writing to me. To all of us. To so many women who lose themselves to the chaos of military service. “Every woman who rises to support another woman will change the face of the military.”5

I think that message transcends the military. Every woman who rises to support another woman will change the face of the academy. The government. Corporations. Journalism. Healthcare. Science. Her message and her experiences are worth reading. Worth sharing. Worth lifting up for others to see and hear. It’s how change happens.

Notes

  1. John C. Inscoe, Writing the South through the Self: Explorations in Southern Autobiography (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 5. Return to text.
  2. Anuradha Bhagwati, Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019), 2. Return to text.
  3. Bhagwati, Unbecoming, 85, 93. Return to text.
  4. Bhagwati, 175. Return to text.
  5. Bhagwati, 312. Return to text.

About the Author

Share your Thoughts