2012 was a great year for war fiction, what with the publication of The Yellow Birds, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Fobbit, and The Watch. For me, these novels marked the coming-of-age of the contemporary war novel, and I started Time Now in part to sing their praises. But under my radar and ahead of the pack in 2011 came Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, a novel set in Iraq in the early days after the US invasion. Not only does Sand Queen get pride of place chronologically in the con-war-lit archive, it portrays women at war, unlike 2012’s bumper crop, all of which are sagas of male soldiers written by male authors. Since the most salient way the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will be remembered in 50 or 100 years is that for the first time the nation included large numbers of women in its fighting forces, Benedict’s achievement is prescient. But what does she want us to understand?
The answer to that question is unmistakeable: Benedict castigates a misogynist military culture that ruins women’s chances of serving honorably and happily. The protagonist of Sand Queen is Kate, a junior enlisted member of a military police battalion charged with guarding prisoners at a detention facility in southern Iraq. The novel’s title refers to a slur leveled at military women who flaunt their sexual desirability during long deployments to our desert warzones. Kate is not a sand queen, but is perceived as one; the general misery of the mission is made far worse for her by the continuous stream of heinous remarks and acts aimed at her and her fellow women soldiers by the unit’s men. Though Kate is far more sinned against than sinning, Benedict suggests that Kate’s naivety and prickly personality make her difficult to deal with even for those who want to help her. Late in the novel, for example, she ends a budding romance with the fellow soldier who has been her truest friend in theater:
We stand silent for a moment, both of us staring at the shadowy ground. ‘Jimmy, please try to understand. I’m just so tired of screwing up people’s lives.’
‘Then why did you just do it again. Fuck.’ He turns away from me and leaves.
Frankly, Kate isn’t much of a soldier, and her unit isn’t much of a unit, and the whole thing’s a mess, not just in ways personally experienced but in the unit’s ability to execute their mission with any degree of professionalism, let alone sensitivity toward each other or Iraqis. Kate’s counterpart in the novel is Naema, a young Iraqi woman whose brother and father are prisoners at the detention facility. Naema pleads her family’s case with Kate daily; the two young women don’t really bond, but instead serve each other as very slight catalysts for empathy. Kate is badly educated and immature, while Naema is a medical student with a deep sense of the worthiness of an Iraqi culture hundreds of generations old. Kate and the Americans hold the cards, but Benedict doesn’t miss many chances to compare the shabbiness and thoughtlessness of the Americans with the badly-bruised dignity of the Iraqis. Naema despairs:
We are sliding backwards in my country. We are becoming narrower than we have been for decades…. Yes, we were confined and fearful under Saddam, and yes, I will never forgive what he did to Papa and so many others. But at least I was able to go to school and Medical College as boldly as any boy wearing jeans and a shirt. I was not forced to think about whether I was a Shiite or Sunni, or half and half, as I am, because among the people I knew it did not matter.
Benedict wrote Sand Queen after publishing a journalistic account of women in the military titled The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (2009). Early on, she sussed that the military’s equitable treatment of women left a lot to be desired. Though many, or some, served free of harassment or abuse, too many did not. Sand Queen furthers the cause of Benedict’s first book by using the tools and allure of fiction to dramatize ways our armed services struggle to live up to their democratic and meritocratic ideals and publicity campaigns. Clearly polemical in intent, Sand Queen‘s focus on detainee operations also helps us imagine conditions that led to Abu Ghraib. An objection might be that Kate’s story is not representative, or is the product of her bad luck being assigned to a bad unit in the bad early days of the war. Kayla Williams, in a great blog post titled “Looking Back on My Military Career, I Most Regret…”, describes her own experience as a female soldier in Iraq. Portions of her deployment were free of sexual harassment, but other assignments and missions were full of it. Williams also rues some of her own acts and choices; like Kate it seems, she was young and not as wise as she might have been. That’s all well and good, but I don’t think Benedict sees it that way. She’s not thanking anyone for their service; for her the Iraq war and military service in general corrupts at every level—badly conceived and planned on high, Operation Iraqi Freedom in Sand Queen‘s view unleashed slaughter upon people who didn’t deserve it and caused nominally good Americans in the ranks to treat each other like animals.
If we take into account that Siobhan Fallon’s collection of short stories You Know When the Men Are Gone was also published in 2011, we can wonder why our contemporary war fiction tradition had to be inaugurated by women. I’ll be thinking further about this question this summer while reading Jen Percy’s Demon Camp, Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You, Hilary Plum’s They Dragged Them Through the Streets, and Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War.
Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, Soho, 2011.