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Terri Barnes Headshot

Not the Critic Who Counts

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Dear New York Times Magazine book critic:

I just received an advance copy of a book by Navy wife Sarah Smiley, Dinner with the Smileys, to be released this week. The book is a touching and forthright account of the way Sarah and her three boys filled her husband's seat at the dinner table during his yearlong deployment. It's about the dinner guests, including teachers, authors, athletes and lawmakers who shared a meal and became the Smiley's friends.

I saw your endorsement on the dust jacket of Sarah's book, and I was pleased that you liked the book too. I was taken aback though by the words you used to praise her writing, which you called "an unexpected voice in a world long defined by ironclad rules and abhorrence of emotion."

Assuming that the world you refer to is the military world I live in, the kindest response I can muster is that the quality of your criticism could benefit from more thorough research.

The world the Smileys live in, the one my family also inhabits, is a life of service to our country, a life of sacrifice, of pride, lasting friendships and unconditional love, It's a world of soldier, sailors, Airmen and Marines who would give their lives for each other and for their country. How could that world be one that abhors emotion?

Military members and families are not cultural aberrants looking for a cold niche in which to hide. We are not cold timid souls whose lack of emotion leads us to a military life scrubbed of feeling. The experiences of our lives, much like yours, are inextricably tied to our emotions.
We love each other, and we hate being apart, but we accept the fact and potential danger of deployments as part of our commitment. That does not mean we don't cry about it. Sometimes we just cry when no one sees.

Military spouses are fearful of the dangers our loved ones face, but we don't melt down at the airport and beg them not to leave. We go home and pray for their safety. We express our love by caring for our children and each other until our spouses return.

If you think we abhor emotion, then you have never seen the reunion of a military family on a hot tarmac or a windy pier. If you think we are not filled with compassion, then you should read about the amputee veterans who visited the hospital beds of those similarly injured in the Boston Marathon bombing.

Just as courage is not the absence of fear but the strength to overcome it, the resolution of a military family is not the absence of emotion. We have emotions and we express them, but we are not ruled by them. When we have to make the hard choice, we make it and we accept the emotions that come with our choices.

In addition to Sarah's excellent work, there are many other writers who convey the deep emotional nature of military life. Since reading books is what you do, allow me to suggest some that will dispel your misconceptions.

Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. This collection was written by a group of veterans and one Army wife, Siobhan Fallon. Though fictional, these stories were inspired by the military lives of the authors.

Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War, by Navy wife Alison Buckholtz, who writes about her experiences as a wife and mom during her husband's deployment.

While They're Away, by Navy wife Kristin Henderson. The author followed the lives of two Army wives during a deployment and tells their stories of through the compassionate eyes of her own experiences.

The Yellow Birds, a novel by Kevin Powell, inspired by his duty in Iraq as an Army machine gunner.

War Letters, by Andrew Carroll. This New York Times best-seller is an exhaustive collection of correspondence between troops and their families from every war since the Revolution. I dare you to find one letter that lacks emotion.

When you finish these, let me know. I can suggest more work from the many skilled military authors writing about the joy and pain of the life we live.

"It's not the critic who counts ... The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
-- Theodore Roosevelt