Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train” is the first story I know of by a woman vet who experienced combat and which portrays women in combat. If it is in fact the first such tale, then it’s guaranteed that “The Train” will be read for hundreds of years by scholars plumming the war experience of female vets.
So let’s check it out now.
Kalinowski is a USMC vet who according to the blurb in Fire and Forget served as a gunner on convoy operations during two tours in Iraq. “The Train” depicts an unnamed woman-vet haunted by guilt for her failure to save the life of her best friend and mentor, a woman named Kavanagh, when they were attacked by a suicide bomber. Much of the story is set before and after the vet’s deployment, but the scenes set in Iraq burn brightest with the vivid detail and emotional intensity of real-life deployment. I’m sure that Kalinowski in her capacity as a convoy gunner had thousands of opportunities to consider the decision that serves as the crux of “The Train”: the right now, instantaneous mental cycling through the Rules of Engagement to decide whether an approaching car or individual is a friend or foe.
Decide right and shoot, and you’ve saved American lives. Decide right and don’t shoot and nothing happens, well, nothing has happened. Decide wrong and shoot, and you’ve killed an innocent civilian. Decide wrong and don’t shoot, and a suicide bomber explodes in your midst.
In “The Train,” the scenario plays out badly at an Entry Control Point (or “ECP”) of a FOB in Iraq. ECPs–the gates that permit entrance and exiting of a base–figure prominently in several Fire and Forget stories, and not surprisingly so. In life and in fiction, they are liminal spaces in the lives of deployed soldiers, the place where familiar and foreign meet, the boundary point between a tense safety inside the base and the dangerous, deadly world outside. Imagined lyrically, Entry Control Point might well have served as a better title than Fire and Forget. It speaks to the guardedness with which vets control access to their inner lives.
(I know, I know, I should have edited my own damn anthology!)
The protagonist vet’s crushing sense of responsibility for Kavanagh’s death is rendered directly: “She should have died with Kavanagh. She shouldn’t be walking across the platform trying to reach the escalator. She shouldn’t be in the city at all. She had tried to forget everything; had tried to sink into drunkenness, into meds, tried to stay awake in fear of the dreams, burrow into some dark place that would give her a break from the memories, from the ECP that would come when she inevitably fell asleep. The pain of self-abuse still felt better than the guilt. Guilt drove it all. Anger that things had gone so wrong.”
Survivor guilt is the theme of Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It also figures prominently in Toni Morrison’s Home, about the Korean War, but published last year like Powers’ and Fountain’s novels. Hell, it’s the theme of my own post-deployment trauma, for what that’s worth. So, nothing so new here—unless we begin to parse the particularly feminine aspects that Kalinowski brings to the depiction. Late in the story, for example, the protagonist sizes up a woman, and the narrator comments, “Cute shoes. She looks at the sandals on the other woman’s feet. Strappy with a faint gold sheen. She could see herself wearing those shoes with a light sundress.” Now there’s a few sentences you won’t find in The Red Badge of Courage or The Naked and the Dead, so welcome, brave new world.
That’s catty of me, but Kalinowski put it out there for us to consider. More substantial is her portrait of the sisterly connection between the protagonist and Kavanagh. Here we have the first vivid description of the female flip side to the oft-described fraternal camaraderie of soldierly bands of brothers. My sense of Kavanagh and the protagonist is that they are much like many of the women with whom I have served. They enjoy each other’s company, and they really enjoy soldiering. That is, they enjoy everyday putting on the uniform and falling into formation. They like packing up their rucksacks and A-bags and moving out with their units. They like the rough love of their sergeants and contemplating the perplexing worldview of their officers. They like doing their jobs, and they like hanging out in the dining facility and talking shit with their peers. They, like Kavanagh and the protagonist, enjoy grabbing 12-packs at the end-of-the-day and drinking the evening away (in the States, not on deployment!). For them, that is as essential an aspect of service as competing for soldier-of-the-month and doing PT every morning. They like bitching a lot but still doing what they are told while “getting over” when they can and yet not earning a reputation as a fuck-up. Male soldiers like all the above, too, but for women it comes with an extra sizzle of newness and difference, and you can see it in their eyes and in their step. They don’t experience it just as women, but they kind of do, too, sometimes, in some ways.
It’s all good, unless men in their own units ruin it for them, or they begin to sense that it’s all really just a big guy’s game that is no longer worthy of their interest or full effort. Which does happen in real life, but doesn’t happen in “The Train” and isn’t Kalinowski’s point.
It’s all good, until the war outside the ECP makes it bad, very very bad, irreversibly bad. Which does happen to soldiers male and female and does happen in “The Train” and is Kalinowski’s point exactly.