The final portrait in our series Between Here and There portrays Lt. Col. Alisha Hamel, a historian and Army National Guard veteran who fought in the first Gulf War. Her story, which she told in bursts while sculptor Christopher Wagner and I mixed and drew and painted and carved, has two kinds of minority views in it: that of a female combatant and that of an oft forgotten war.
A few months ago she helped connect us with Bill Keys, a World War II vet who turned 90 while we worked on his portrait. Alisha came to see the progress during one of those sessions, and we asked her if she wouldn’t mind posing as our second female, represeting both a transition in women’s roles in our military and the veterans from a short war we tend to overlook in the grand combat narrative sweep between Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan.
Remember the Gulf War? After aggressive action by a Mideast dictator, President George Bush—that’s H.W., not W—gathered a coalition of 34 nations with UN resolutions in hand, said, “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait,” and efficiently pushed the dictator’s troops out of the way, inadvertently starting a military involvement in the region that continues today. I turned twelve as the “Desert Shield” buildup gave way to the “Desert Storm” aerial bombardment and a three-week ground war, the first real-time cable news clash between nations.
In 1990 Alisha, a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant, had been in her job one week when her unit was called up. She said they were the first Oregon unit deployed since World War II. (Since there are no big bases or forts in Oregon, that makes sense.) Her unit handled “air terminal movement control,” which means helping other units arrive safely to a location via air. Alisha was one of the first troops deployed.
She served as the Battalion S-1—the junior officer who managed the logistical arrival of people, parts and vehicles, clearing the way of any traffic jams as transport aircraft and trucks and so on arrived to the Saudi desert.
As a woman in an conservative Muslim kingdom, she was not allowed to drive and usually made do with a male driver who sported huge coke bottle glasses. She joked about seeing all the potential road mishaps that he couldn’t, and once, she said, her driver took a wrong turn and almost took them into Kuwait just as the allies were warming up to invade the area.
Sometimes, for the sake of efficiency and safety, Alisha disobeyed orders and drove herself, watching some Saudi women cheer when they saw her drive past.
Alisha went into combat in an amazing moment of transition for women in our military. For the first time, she said, “In Desert Storm, women were actually expected to be in positions that were not necessarily female roles.” That is, they deployed for the first time not just as secretaries or nurses but as combat pilots, logistics officers and more. With each subsequent conflict, the role of women has increased, and the Pentagon is still learning how to manage the logistical, legal and other challenges that come when men and women work the same combat jobs and sleep and take showers in the same areas.
Because the more things change…
Alisha was one of a long line of women in our military who had to weather harassment of many kinds. Unwanted sexual advances from one superior got bad enough that she had to transfer to a different unit just before deployment to Saudi Arabia.
Twenty-four years after her combat deployment she identifies as a minority of a different sort: as a veteran of a quick war that didn’t stamp itself on the national consciousness with near the severity of the ones that came before and after. As a result her generation of veterans doesn’t qualify for the post-9/11 benefits in the GI Bill, as well as other similar benefits from the VA, and no national memorial site (unless you count this virtual one).
It all reminds me of French critic Jean Baudrillard’s book of essays The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, written during and immediately after that conflict. Baudrillard makes the sassy argument that the Gulf War, which appeared to be a war, really wasn’t one. War, for Baudrillard, can’t have a predetermined outcome. It has to be a contest between equals that breeds heroism and memorials and a generation that wrestles with its aftermath. The last hot war, World War II, gave way to the Cold War, and then, in 1990, “America, Saddam Hussein and the Gulf powers are fighting over the corpse of war” (23).
For Baudrillard, a critic bent on the idea that modern life is full of simulations of events that replace real relationships with each other and our environment, the live CNN images of green tracers arcing toward unseen fighter/bombers, the mind-boggling deployment of troops and materiel, and the bloodless language of “surgical strikes” and “kinetic warfare” gave the whole enterprise the look and feel of a video game.
(An aside: According to accounts widely cited in 1991 and repeated in Baudrillard’s book, more bombs were dropped by allied forces on Iraq and Kuwait during that six-week air bombardment than all the tonnage dropped in World War II, but that doesn’t hold water. This article cites both those errant early claims and the later corrections. Official records show about 88,500 tons of bombs were dropped in the 1991 war, compared to 1,613,000 tons dropped over Europe in World War II, which doesn’t factor in the other half of the war, in the Pacific, which also featured the only two nukes ever used in anger.)
Of course for Alisha Hamel, the heat, the Scud missile attacks, the second-class treatment in country, and the harassment from her fellow troops were etched in deep. As Executive Director of the Historical Outreach Foundation, she has dedicated her career to teaching children about combat history, setting aside video game style attractions for hands-on displays of real equipment and uniforms, teaching mostly about wars she never saw. It’s a worthy mission performed honorably by someone trying to help the next generation of military members—women and men—get a more fair shake than she did.