War Stories: Helen Benedict, Brian Van Reet, David Abrams

2017 brings novels by three contemporary war lit “plank-holders”–Navy SEAL-speak for members who were in on the game at its founding. Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season takes contemporary war-and-mil-writing preoccupation with dogs to its fantastical-yet-logical extension; Brian Van Reet’s Spoils reimagines the female-soldier captivity narrative first presented by Jessica Lynch’s and Shoshana Johnson’s memoirs, and David Abrams’ Brave Deeds riffs on the rogue soldier motif familiar from Bowe Bergdahl’s and Robert Bale’s real-life sagas.

Helen Benedict, Wolf Season. Bellevue Literary Press, 2017.

Helen Benedict’s 2011 Sand Queen was by my count the first Iraq War novel; if I’m wrong, someone please correct me. A story about the intersecting lives of two women, an American soldier named Kate and an Iraqi medical student named Naema Jassim, Sand Queen eviscerated the American conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom by portraying the ruin of its two protagonists’ lives as a result, primarily, of the American military’s toxic masculine culture. The sequel to Sand Queen, Wolf Season takes place in America, where Naema has unexpectedly taken up residence in a small upstate New York town where she serves as a doctor in a VA clinic. One of her patients is, not Kate, who doesn’t figure in Wolf Season, but another female veteran named Rin Drummond. Rin’s time in service has ended badly, leaving her widowed, badly wracked by PTSD, the mother of a blind daughter, and the caretaker of three semi-domesticated wolves. Rin wants nothing more than to be left alone, protected by and protective of her wolfpack, but life in a small-town home to Iraqi refugees and overly-macho military men still on frequent deployment cycle to America’s forever wars ensure that’s not going to happen. Rin and Naema are compellingly drawn, as are Rin’s daughter Juney and Naema’s son Tariq and the three wolves, Gray, Silver, and Ebony. Most striking, however, are two male characters, Louis Martin and Todd Wycombe, both veterans struggling to be men worthy of respect. Benedict’s not completely hostile to the idea that military service might be improving or even ennobling, but two novels’ worth of portraits of America boy-men whose propensity for self-delusion, misogyny, and violence are exacerbated by time in uniform make it clear she’s skeptical that those things are happening very often these days. One could almost feel sorry for Benedict’s male veterans, if they didn’t bring on so much trouble for themselves through their stupidity and vanity, and if they didn’t fuck things up so badly for everyone around them.

Brian Van Reet, Spoils. Little, Brown and Company, 2017.

Spoils, US Army veteran Brian Van Reet’s long-anticipated novel of war in Iraq, comes many years after the author established his reputation as a war short-story author par excellence. Even before the fine “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” appeared in the 2013 Fire and Forget anthology, Van Reet was placing striking short fiction in literary journals, and “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is, if anything, surpassed by a story titled “Eat the Spoil” published in the Spring 2014 Missouri Review. Van Reet attended, as did I, the University of Virginia, where he was an Echols Scholar, which I most definitely wasn’t, so I have a high regard for the intellect he brings to bear on the consideration of war. Van Reet was a tank crewman in the early days of Iraq, where he earned a Bronze Star with a V device for valor, which is also saying something. A tanker named Specialist Sleed figures in both the aforementioned stories and now appears again in Spoils, but he’s not much of a scholar and as a soldier one more likely to get an Article 15 for misconduct than a medal. A follower rather than a leader of soldiers even more indifferently motivated than he is, Sleed, in true “E4-Mafia” fashion, is good in spurts but more typically wavers between commitment to mission and impulses to “get over.” Scenes describing tank battle in Iraq especially intrigue, but Sleed’s just one of a trio of protagonists in Spoils; another is a young woman named Cassandra Wigheard who serves in Sleed’s unit. Wigheard’s not exactly a super-soldier, either, but she tries, and she can’t be blamed when she is captured by a group of insurgents led by the third principal, a very conflicted and not especially fanatical Egyptian jihadist named Abu Al-Hool. Van Reet seems to be making a point about how war unfolds in the contemporary trenches—whatever the clarity, fervor, and righteousness of the political and ideological rhetoric, for the participants on both sides it’s a haphazard, highly contingent, badly conceptualized and realized mess that’s likely to get them killed through sheer sloppiness. We can see Sleed as Van Reet’s alter ego, while Al-Hool joins the Pashtun protagonist of Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue as a rounded literary portrait of one of our War on Terror opponents, but it’s the depiction of Cassandra that really stands out as the author’s effort to represent “the Other,” with all the attendant risks that endeavor brings. Sleed and Al-Hool narrate their stories in first-person, but Van Reet, UVa-educated gentleman that he is, circumspectly renders Cassandra’s voice and thoughts in third-person, perhaps thinking graciously that full, extended novelistic inhabitation of a woman warrior’s subjectivity and depiction of perspective should be left to, well, a woman veteran. That will come, in time, but what Van Reet offers here rings true; for example, on Cassandra contemplating a career in the Army: “Yet more and more, the thought of going for a twenty-year pension has begun to feel like prolonged suffocation in a cavernous, airtight room.”

David Abrams, Brave Deeds. Black Cat, 2017.

Few things could possibly be more welcome than a second novel from David Abrams, the author of 2012’s highly entertaining and shrewdly perceptive black comedy Fobbit. No one would blame Abrams if he moved on from Iraq—surely he has it in him and will do so one day—but I for one am glad that he has kept his eye on the Tigris and Euphrates battlefield for at least one more novel, this summer’s Brave Deeds. If anything, Brave Deeds is more of a war novel than Fobbit, a work that has its boom-boom moments, but which is largely more interested in military culture than combat action. Where Fobbit explored a wide range of Army types and ranks as they frittered away their deployments doing busy work on the FOB, Brave Deeds relentlessly focuses on the actions of fighting men outside the wire, observing the unities of time and place to follow the journey of six junior enlisted infantry soldiers as they cross Baghdad, AWOL, to attend the memorial service of a beloved, at least by some, squad leader. Along the way, adventures ensue, distinctiveness of character emerges, and back-stories get told in the manner of picaresque war tales ranging from the Odyssey to Going After Cacciato, but Brave Deeds feels far from derivative. Rather, it is fired up, that is to say inspired, by an animus that Fobbit hinted at but softened with its comic punch-pulling: Abrams’ interest in, which is to say love for, young enlisted soldiers bereft of the quote-unquote leadership of NCOs and officers, two military demographics whose authority and credibility are discredited in the eyes of the Brave Deeds soldiers, probably Abrams’ as well, and, frankly, my own, looking back at the negligible achievements of long war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The David Abrams I know—a career NCO, for what it’s worth–is a kind, gentle, and sweet soul, but Brave Deeds reflects an intense class-war and age-based generation gap sensibility that exposes military lifers as the vapid and ultimately incompetent self-servers that many junior enlisted suspect them to be within weeks of joining. Abrams’ achievement here, people, is immense: many contemporary war fiction titles strive to portray the worldview of junior enlisted service members—“Joe” in Army-speak, or the “Terminal Lance” as they are known in the Marines—and much of it falters for want of craft, over-reliance on clichés, and limitation of vision. Those are not Abrams’ problems in the least; Brave Deeds‘ focus on the infantry squad and young male soldier may be traditional, but the view rendered through Abrams’ eyes is up-to-the-minute.

2011: The Year Contemporary War Fiction Became a Thing

In a 2011 Atlantic magazine article titled “Where’s the Great Novel About the War on Terror?” Matt Gallagher, the author of the Iraq War memoir Kaboom, explores reasons why, as of the time he writes, so little fiction had appeared that addressed America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Almost a decade after the first bombs were dropped in Afghanistan,” Gallagher writes, “even the most avid bookworm would be hard-pressed to identify a war novel that could be considered definitive of this new generation’s battles.” The title of Gallagher’s article bears an eery similarity to a question posed by German critic Walter Benjamin in a 1936 piece called “The Storyteller.” Looking back at World War I, Benjamin wrote, “Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent–not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?”

Benjamin continues by suggesting that “the flood of war books”–particularly novels–that began appearing in Germany ten years after World War I’s end shortchanged “experience,” or wisdom, for what he derisively called “information.” Be that as it may, let’s keep our eye on Gallagher here, for he wasn’t wrong surveying America’s recent publishing past. In my search for war fiction published prior to 2011 I can find only a few short stories scattered here-and-there. Frederick Busch (Benjamin Busch’s father) published two short tales, “Good to Go” and “Patrols,” for examples, in small literary magazines before including them in his 2006 collection titled Rescue Missions. Annie Proulx’s “Tits-Up in a Ditch” about a woman who loses an arm to an IED in Iraq, appeared in the New Yorker in 2008, as well as in Proulx’s collection of short stories titled Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3. Busch and Proulx were both established authors—each over 60 years old at the time they wrote their stories–with many published titles and critical laurels to their credit. I’m glad they turned their attention to the nation’s millennial wars, but not sure why a younger cohort of writers, to include veteran-authors, didn’t make Iraq and Afghanistan their subjects sooner than they did.

Gallagher notes the publication of Siobhan Fallon’s collection of tales about life at Fort Hood, Texas, You Know When The Men Are Gone, which appeared in January 2011. But he’s skeptical that more fiction might be forthcoming in the years to come. Iraq and Afghanistan, he suggests, just might go undocumented by authors of fiction, much like, say, the Filipino-American War (his example, not mine). Gallagher, bless him, wasn’t right in this case. 2011 would see the publication not only of You Know When The Men Are Gone, but Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, and the years after 2011 would see much more fiction about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, authored by veterans and civilians alike. Let’s give credit to Fallon and Benedict for initiating the contemporary war lit surge, and by no means should we succumb to Benjamin-like skepticism about their achievement. Benedict, an academic and activist writing as a critic-from-outside unimpressed by the military effort, and Fallon, an Army spouse writing as a military insider full of knowing sympathy, established twin poles of literary possibility that virtually every writer since has followed one-way-or-the-other. That You Know When the Men Are Gone and Sand Queen were authored by women and featured women protagonists is also important. The great wave of war novels that arrived in 2012–The Yellow Birds, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Watch, and Fobbit–was “all dudes,” as the saying goes, but 2013 and onwards featured many war fiction titles by and about women.

Let’s note also that Gallagher’s novel about Iraq, Youngblood, and Roy Scranton’s War Porn, which Gallagher mentions as an example of a war novel having trouble finding a publisher, will be out in 2016. Finally, Time Now, which I began in 2012, owes much to a comment by Gallagher I heard while in the audience for his presentation at the War, Literature, and the Arts conference at the United States Air Force Academy in 2010. Gallagher remarked that any war writer seeking to establish him or herself in our modern era had better have an online presence. I already kept a blog going about my Afghanistan deployment, so I wasn’t thunderstruck by Gallagher’s claim, but it occurred to me then that the art, film, and literature of the current wars might benefit from dedicated digital coverage and critique. Hence this blog, and hence, Matt Gallagher, thanks.

While we’re rendering thanks, let’s also commend the organizers of that 2010 War, Literature, and the Arts conference, which was so seminal in its recognition of contemporary war writing as a genre and so inspiring not just to me but to many others.  At the time, I was already aware of Brian Turner’s work, but the WLA conference was my initial exposure to writing by Fallon, Gallagher, Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, Elyse Fenton, and quite a few others (though note Fallon as the only author of fiction). So here’s to WLA editor Donald Anderson and conference organizers Jesse Goolsby and Brandon Lingle. Excellent writers themselves, they nourish excellence in others, storytellers interested not in purveying information but communicating experience.


Iraq and Afghan Women in War and War Fiction

Sand QueenMy post last week about poetry written by Afghan women prompted one reader to ask me about fictional portraits of Afghan and Iraqi women and another to ask me about my own experiences with Afghan women during my deployment to Khost and Paktya provinces in 2008-2009. The first query can be answered quickly, for there aren’t many. In Sand Queen (2011) Helen Benedict features a young Iraqi woman named Naema. In The Watch (2012) Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya portrays a young Afghan woman named Nizam. In both novels, the women narrate their stories in first person in chapters that alternate with others that relate events from American point-of-views. In both novels, the young women have come to American bases or outposts to plead the case of relatives killed or captured by Americans. In Sand Queen, Naema wants to know what’s become of her father and brother, who have been imprisoned in Camp Bucca. In The Watch, Nizam wants the Americans to return the body of her The Watchbrother, a vaunted Pashtun jihadist, who has been killed in an attack on their compound. The Americans intend to evacuate Nizam’s brother’s corpse to Kabul to verify his identity and publicize his death.

Naema and Nizam are more intelligent, more mature, and more articulate than the Americans with whom they interact. Their integrity and sense of ethics are also superior. Through them, Benedict and Roy-Bhattacharya suggest how ill-equipped most American soldiers were for dealing with Iraq and Afghan nationals, especially women, with anything approaching subtlety and sensitivity. Stupidity and brutality more accurately describe things.

Short story authors Katey Schultz and Siobhan Fallon also occasionally portray “local national” women in their fiction. Benedict, Roy-Bhattacharya, Schultz, and Fallon are all civilians who never served in the military. In the fiction about Iraq and Afghanistan written by veterans, Iraq and Afghan women barely appear. Survey The Yellow Birds, Fobbit, Redeployment, and the Fire and Forget anthology and tell me what you find. Of recently published fiction by veterans, Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue includes a young Afghan woman as a secondary character, but not so much Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends I Could Find Them and Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives. Benedict, Schultz, and Fallon are all women, but not all women authors are given to portraying “host nation” women. None appear in Sparta, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, Be Safe I Love You, or Eleven Days, all written by women. Male civilian authors are more of the same: no Iraq or Afghan women in the male-authored Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Wynne’s War, or The Apartment.

So that’s an interesting but not very impressive record. I salute the civilian authors who have made the imaginative stretch to portray war from the viewpoints of Iraqi and Afghan women. The veterans, I’m thinking, just don’t have much real-world experience to draw on, for most of us spent our year or years overseas without any meaningful contact with local women. Here’s the sum total of my experiences, and I went “outside the wire” four or five days a week, at least in the first eight months of my deployment, to interact with Afghan civilians in one capacity or another.

Every woman we saw on the roads of Khost province wore blue burqas that covered them from head-to-toe. When we passed them in our trucks, they would turn away from us and hunch down in a ball until we passed. This behavior outraged our interpreters. “Do you know why they are doing that?” they would ask, “It is because the Taliban is making them.” But the times we saw women on the street were few. On most missions, we only saw men. Stopping to speak with the women we did see was unimaginable.

We hosted a shura on our camp and one of the speakers was a woman politician of some fame in Afghanistan. I wish I remembered her name, because I wonder how she came to prominence and what’s become of her.  After the public shura, I was privy to an hour-long private meeting in which the woman-politician was the only female in a group of twelve (and I the only American). Her veil came off and she bantered back-and-forth, seemingly at ease, with the men, who also seemed to enjoy the occasion immensely.

A package bounced out of one of our trailers on a bumpy patch of road and was immediately picked up by a young Afghan male who carried it into a kalat. We stopped and sent our interpreter to retrieve the package. I watched as he was met at the door by a woman who vehemently denied that anything had happened. She and our interpreter jabbered back and forth for a few minutes and then the interpreter pushed past her into an interior room, retrieved the package and returned to our trucks.

Adolescent girls before maturity played on the streets without restraint, and it was heart-breaking to think about those obviously within a few months of disappearing behind the veil and kalat walls for the rest of their lives. We hosted weekly medical clinics on our camp and saw a steady stream of young girls there, but all were escorted to us by their fathers and older brothers, never their mothers and older sisters. My Afghan counterpart sometimes was visited by his seven-year-old daughter, who scampered about the office as a young girl would anywhere, alternately snuggling up to her father and then dancing across the room in peels of laughter. For a while, a young Afghan-American woman worked as an interpreter on our camp. We all liked her fine, but she had trouble relating to the Afghan officers. I think the problem was more that her command of Dari and Pashto were not great and also that she was demure by nature—a huge handicap in a nation made up of emotional and outspoken verbal combatants.

An ANA brigade commander, the governor of Khost, and the Khost police chief with a young girl in a downtown Khost ice cream shop.
An ANA brigade commander, the governor of Khost, and the Khost police chief with a young girl in a downtown Khost ice cream shop.

So that was it—pretty slim pickings, all-in-all, and though I’m sure we could have done better, the pickings were certainly even slimmer for rank-and-file soldiers. The men and women who served on Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which were charged with nation-building and humanitarian missions, had more significant interactions, but their numbers were few. NGOs had developed a network of women’s schools, clinics, and centers in they years after 9/11, but by the time I arrived most had closed, if not been blown up. Maybe more was happening in Kabul and inside the Green Zone in Iraq, but I wouldn’t know. Much has been made lately of the Cultural Support Teams made up of women who passed rigorous qualification tests to work with Special Operations units to facilitate their interactions with women. I don’t want to gainsay anything the women on these teams accomplished, and I look forward to finding out more about them, but accompanying Green Berets, SEALs, and Rangers on midnight missions to seize High Value Targets in my mind unfortunately doesn’t qualify as a significant and sustained engagement with the women of Afghanistan, and in any case the whole effort came at least five years too late. If there were feminine hearts-and-minds to be won, or important intelligence to be gained from the distaff side of Afghan and Iraq society, we didn’t do much to glean them. That’s good news for military wives worried about their husbands misbehaving downrange or falling in love with an Afghan or Iraqi beauty, but bad news for war writers interested in portraying the full range of citizenry in the lands in which we fought.

A girl at the Camp Clark clinic, 2009.  Picture by an International Security Force and Assistance Force photographer.
A girl at the Camp Clark clinic, 2009. Picture by an International Security Force and Assistance Force photographer.

Tim O’Brien’s “Story Truth” and “Happening Truth” in the Contemporary War Novel

Do war stories need militarily-accurate detail to be compelling? Lots of contemporary war fiction bandies the author’s familiarity with up-to-the-minute jargon, gear, and nomenclature, as if the story’s success depended on readers tipping their hats to the author’s first-hand knowledge of what an MRAP, IFAK, or ETT might be. And why not? Iraq and Afghanistan were different from Vietnam, Korea, and World War II, and some of that difference is reflected in the gear, tactics, and language used by those who fought it. Why shouldn’t authors include a little bit or a lotta-bit of verisimilar detail in their stories?

But that’s not all there is to the question. Could one say that some contemporary war fiction is overly dependent on the insider knowledge that comes with “having been there, and done that”? Waving their litanies of military lingo and equipment as badges of authenticity, they distract attention from the author’s story-telling chops, attract gullible, easily-impressed readers, and repel discriminating ones who resent callous efforts at being manipulated.

thingstheycarriedTim O’Brien, the most important pre-9/11 writer to the contemporary war lit scene, defines these issues most succinctly. In the magnificent “The Things They Carried,” he itemizes the gear carried by infantrymen in Vietnam in long lists that stand-alone from the explicit events of the story. The effect is not only intoxicating, but groundbreaking. I don’t think the generation of World War II authors—Mailer, Styron, Heller, and Jones—ever slowed down the narrative flow of their novels in such a way to focus attention on the equipment and verbiage that enveloped their characters. But after O’Brien, almost every American vet and civilian author of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction that I can think of somewhere makes such a move. Even a lefty-feminist poet such as Juliana Spahr, in her poem “This Connection of Everyone with Lungs” can’t resist name-checking the precise, specific equipment that help define how we fight now.  Other arch-examples of the tendency include Phil Klay’s story “Frago” and Paul Wasserman’s poem  “15 Months, 22 Days.”  Klay’s and Wasserman’s works are self-conscious commentaries on the practice, and so too is Spahr’s, but for other authors the tendency seems to be more unknowing, or even craven.

Is any of this necessary? Tim O’Brien, again, leads the way in helping us understand. In an Atlantic magazine essay titled “Telling Tales,” he derides an over-reliance on verisimilar detail and instead argues that a story above all must be an original, striking act of the imagination. For O’Brien, realistic description is only a secondary attribute of fiction, one bound to eventually bore the reader unless the tale starts tickling the fancy through its artistic and fanciful rendering, or even contorting, of reality. Helen Benedict, in her review of Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives, takes another approach by arguing that reveling in military-specific jargon, equipment, and tactics amounts to glorifying war. I half-suspect she’s right, even as I wait for war writers to expand their reach to more and different realms of the Iraq and Afghanistan war experience, a move that can only be made by bringing the material and linguistic reality of the wars into view.

A good case in point in this discussion is Fives and Twenty-Fives itself. I praised it in my last post for subjecting the world of military movement in armored vehicles in Iraq to artistic rendering. I also hinted that Pitre was very observant about how military service shapes the habits of perception of service members. It’s not just what soldiers and Marines see and experience, it’s how they are trained to see and experience by military method and the danger of war. A chapter titled “The Rule” in Fives and Twenty-Fives illustrates by vividly portraying a small-unit patrol brief and the ensuing patrol. Almost every detail offered by Pitre suggests the ways that the Marines in the story have been altered by their service.

The platoon sergeant, Gunny Stout, proclaims, “Five and twenty-five’s the rule,” by which he means that the Marines on patrol will not look at just whatever they want to, but at assigned fields of vision, first five meters out, then 25. But Gunny Stout himself has also been changed. The body armor and sunglasses he wears, by hiding his middle-age flab and wrinkles, takes years off his appearance: “he looked like he could’ve been in grade school.” Gunny Stout, smart as a gunny should be, directs at every turn the absorption of patrol brief information by the Marines. He commands the platoon medic to stand next to the bomb-defusing technician, because it “helped the Marines” by inspiring confidence and unity. “Everyone stood still when [Gunny] talked,” “staring at the dirt during the convoy brief.” But when Gunny Stout commands, “Eyes up,” everyone directs their gaze his way. The platoon’s attention during the patrol brief is also monitored by the second sergeant in the chain-of-command, Michelle Gomez. Sergeant Gomez is “the only Marine allowed to move around during the convoy brief.” “She circled us,” Pitre’s narrator tells us, “like a sheepdog, making sure we all paid attention.”

Feminist critics remind us that oppression of women is often manifested through control of their bodies. They would have a field day with a scene in which Sergeant Gomez, prior to going on duty, works her long hair into a bun to meet the demands of military grooming standards. But Sergeant Gomez, no one’s victim or object of suppression, circumvents easy categorizing. When the narrator catches her fixing her hair, Sergeant Gomez fires back: “She notices me and narrowed her eyes, all mad. Like, what the fuck you looking at? Turn around. Get back to work, asshole.” The narrator, a young male medic, is unconcerned. He actually likes being spoken to like that. He’s smart enough to notice the contortions wrought on civility by military service, but in the context of actually being a Marine in the middle of a war he totally understands where Sergeant Gomez is coming from. And there is no one, absolutely no one, whom he trusts more than Gunny Stout and Sergeant Gomez to roll out the gate with on the unit’s daily mission to defuse and fill booby-trapped IED craters.

The scene strikingly portrays the flows of deference, obedience, and resistance characteristic of enlisted life in the service. Gunny Stout, the senior non-commissioned officer in the platoon, is the master of passive-aggressive instantiation of chain-of-command orders and policies, no matter how much they are hated. After the platoon leader, Lieutenant Donovan, directs the platoon to stop writing obscene and derogatory graffiti in the FOB port-a-johns, Gunny Stout affirms the directive, but modifies it in terms the junior troops appreciate:

Then, his voice so low the lieutenant couldn’t hear, Gunny Stout said to us, “I’m running over to the shitters after we break. In fact, I’ll give the whole platoon three minutes to do the same. You know that glistening, goddamn beautiful cock in the last stall on the right? I want a picture before it’s gone forever. One of you miscreants is a regular Leonardo da Vinci of dicks, and I’d hate to see the evidence erased for all time. Fucking tragedy.”

The platoon executes not just dutifully but laughingly, and the story doesn’t end there. On patrol, a sergeant named Marceau requests the other two sergeants in the platoon, one of whom is Sergeant Gomez, to switch to an unauthorized radio frequency the NCOs use to communicate freely out of earshot of the officers.

“Listen,’ I heard Marceau say. ‘You two deserve to know that most of those penis murals are mine. And I’ll be honest—I don’t think I can quit cold turkey. Over.”

Zahn and Gomez, in separate vehicles, both keyed their radios just to let Marceau hear them laughing.

Marceau, kept going, deadpan. “So here’s my compromise: I’ll keep drawing penises, and you can go ahead and put me down as a volunteer for the overnight shitter watch. Out.”

And so Pitre continues, eloquently dancing on the boundary line between realistic rendering and novelistic possibility. When we think of Sergeant Gomez, what do we think? True-to-life portrayal? Fantastical embellishment? A male fantasy? Or a well-drawn representation of how it is to be a woman soldier or Marine in the military today? Would we like the story more if it were written by a woman? Would a woman write such a scene? Has Pitre’s own service rendered him an insider’s advantage on life inside a small unit? Does it lend his story credibility? Or, could he have told the story just as well after reading lots of memoirs and watching YouTube clips? Tim O’Brien writes in a story titled “Good Form” of “story-truth” and “happening-truth” and asserts that story-truth, or emotional truth, is far more important than happening-truth, or realistic depiction. But how do you know story truth when you see it, and how far can you take it?

UPDATE:  Adam Karr’s review of Fives and Twenty-Fives for Make Literary Magazine also riffs off the legacy of Tim O’Brien and the importance of realistic detail in war fiction. Karr’s review was in circulation before mine, and though I was not thinking of his review when I wrote this post, Karr should be given all credit for first raising this important issue, especially as it pertains to Fives and Twenty-Fives.

No Thank You For Your Service: Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen

Sand Queen2012 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.

%d bloggers like this: