Unbecoming by Anuradha Bhagwati
Anuradha Bhagwati recounts her service as a woman of color in the United States Marine Corps, where she was one of the few female officers in a misogynistic society, and the years after—where she struggled to come back to life and support military survivors of sexual assault.
It has taken me nearly three weeks to write this review, not because it was a bad book (it’s not—see the five stars) but because so much of Bhagwati’s experiences are those that I share, and so many of her insights are ones that I have come to myself, particularly after getting out of the Marine Corps.
Bhagwati ended her service in 2004, just when I was beginning to take the first steps into my career towards becoming a Marine Corps Officer. We were in Boston/Cambridge at the same time, and I know and met (and naively idolized) quite a few of the people she mentions. It makes me wonder if we ever bumped paths.
This is a raw, unflinching story, where Bhagwati lays everything—and I mean everything—out, to the point where at times I was wondering who this was for? Atonement for past mistakes? A CYA in case someone came after her for…whatever? There were moments that I was like, no you fucking didn’t, and other times that I was like, yup, been there, done that.
Bhagwati was a communications officer, and was rough and tough and trained her Marines like they were going to go to war—and most did, after 9/11. She was one of the first women MCMAP instructors (before it was called MCMAP), Col Bristol was her personal demon, and the first woman commanding officer of a company at Camp Geiger’s School of Infantry.
However, where the story shined was in Bhagwati’s insights into the hyper-masculine culture of the Marine Corps, and her callout towards the higher ups who have continually devalued and undermined women Marines and their achievements, and continually set them up as lesser than their male peers—and her recommendations on how to fix it (note: change the majority not the minority, as we have been saying for years, the problem isn’t the women).
She also calls out the culture of women in the Marine Corps, and how we have been systematically trained not to band together with our minority female peers, but to distance ourselves from those who show weakness so not to have the “taint” touch us. We are stronger together, and the pervasive mentality of “I am better than the rest” only strengthens and buys into the systematic sexism of the Marine Corps mentality.
Much of Bhagwati’s experiences as a veteran I can wholly relate to (minus actually going to the VA—nope nope nope, not doing that, not even as my body breaks down around me), from the feelings of inadequacy to feelings that I didn’t actually serve because I never deployed (aaaaaaaaand the whole host of feelings that brings up as a woman veteran) to the depression and anxiety that plagues most of us, to the feeling that we’re not good enough for the Marines but too good for any other service, to the feeling that no one understands. The isolation and despair are ones I connect to well, along with the realization that no one gives a shit after you’re out. That fawning adoration of active servicemembers? Yeah, that’s gone the second you get that DD214 (unless you’re a dude).
Anywho x 2.
This book captures a lot of what I’m coming to realize is a universal experience for a lot of women Marine veterans, and names and describes much of the Marine Corps culture and how it relates to women (and men! because men are soooooo damaged by the Marine Corps’ toxic masculinity and they never even realize how it seeps into their entire being).
Bhagwati also talks about her experience as a brown person in the mostly-white officer corps, and how the intersectionality of woman and brownness interacted and informed much of her experience.
I strongly believe that this book should be required reading on the Commandant’s Reading List.
I know that my review wasn’t the most articulate, but this book captured so much of what I’ve come to believe as wrong within the Marine Corps (feelings that grew when I was in, but I was so vertically integrated into the system that I didn’t want to realize it until later and I grew words to describe my feelings of discontent and unease) and a history of how the Marine Corps has wronged and continues to wrong women by setting them apart instead of integrating them fully as equal partners.
The Marine Corps is a strong, fighting organization. This is true.
But it has deep, unspoken flaws that the leadership fails to look at.
It’s mindset towards women is one of them (and also survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, who may or may not happen to be women).
These can be changed, but the Marine Corps needs to lean into that change instead of throwing gimmes to mollify the minority while avoiding angering the systematically brainwashed majority.