Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant dares to be different. For starters, the novel’s protagonist, a young lieutenant named Emma Fowler, the platoon leader of an Army unit in Iraq tasked with recovering damaged American vehicles, is not a white male combat arms soldier, the usual hero of war fiction. That’s excellent right there; during my own deployment in Afghanistan I met many young women lieutenants, graduates of service academies and ROTC programs, perched in charge of units that were “all dudes,” or mostly so. They all seemed like the “good lieutenants” Terrell writes of: eager to do well, trying to project competence and fit in while also aware of their status as fiercely-judged pioneers and role models. Terrell, a former war correspondent, must have had his curiosity piqued by seeing the same while embedded with units in Iraq. The recent revelation of a popular Facebook page devoted to sharing pictures of female Marines and commenting on their looks and sex lives reinforces the notion that the military is deeply sexist and hostile to women, despite official policies and programs promoting gender equality. Very relevantly, then, The Good Lieutenant portrays the difficulties women face trying to honorably negotiate a culture that cherishes traditional masculine values to the point of pervasive misogyny. Even better, the novel details the particulars of character and situation that make Fowler’s effort to be “good” so hard.
The Good Lieutenant’s interest in gender is not all that makes it different. Against the grain of most fiction, Terrell narrates Fowler’s war in reverse chronological order. The most recent, most eventful act in the novel—an IED explosion in Iraq–arrives in the first chapter, with the subsequent chapters recounting scenes prior to the climactic introduction, not told “in retrospect” as Fowler remembers things, but portrayed sequentially backwards through time to Fowler’s unit’s train-up at Fort Riley, Kansas. I’ve read a lot, but it took for me a smart review of The Good Lieutenant in New Statesman to identify literary precedents for Terrell’s flipped narration in avant-garde theater and film. Telling a story in reverse order forfeits much of narrative’s dependable suspense-then-climax allure. Sure enough, in The Good Lieutenant, sensational combat scenes, dastardly war crimes, and treacherous military perfidy give way to events that are, frankly, mundane in comparison, but which Terrell’s narrative logic insists we contemplate as cumulatively most important and engaging. Even more unsettling is the disappearance of characters who occupy considerable page space in the opening chapters. An Iraqi interpreter and a mute Iraqi youth who figure prominently in scenes set in Iraq, for examples, drop out of the book one-third of the way in for the simple reasons that Fowler has not yet met them and Terrell chooses not to trace their backstories any further.
The effect is disorienting, which is at least half the point: Terrell’s not interested in programmatic depictions, but in having us respond slowly and cerebrally, rather than quickly and emotionally, to a complicated set of circumstances and events. He helpfully provides an epilogue that brings us back to the IED explosion to make final sense of things, but he’s not especially interested in coddling readers. Like the narratological pyrotechnics, the prose surface of The Good Lieutenant confounds easy apprehension. Terrell offers minimal exposition to help to stage and connect events, with most scenes joined in media res and ended just as abruptly, and he’s apt to describe things suggestively rather than literally. Fowler and the other characters speak to each other in much the same way: clipped, enigmatic comments whose meaning might be understood by each other in context but must be guessed at by readers. Not that this is a bad thing, it bears emphasizing; literalness is a problem in much war fiction, and while The Good Lieutenant demands alert, not-easily-intimidated readers, it’s not Ulysses, either. Terrell’s interest in the pre-history of a traumatizing event, rather than its post-history, is bracing. Combat death is almost always personal, as the survivors interrogate their own complicity in the deaths of fellow soldiers with whom they have lived and worked intensively, and for officers the onus of responsibility is especially strong: The Good Lieutenant illustrates how in a military at war, choices and relationships, born of character and biography, work inexorably to bring soldiers to the point where some live and some die.
All the above said, it’s Terrell’s portrait of Fowler that interests most. The view is of a complicated and flawed young woman, one who wants to do right, but who tends to over-think things and yet still is not able to satisfactorily or effectively stitch together the disparate pieces of her life. Fowler is indeed, by appearances, “good”—her troops call her “Family Values” for her constant admonishments to live wholesomely. She leads by-the-book and tries to be a team player, which is not always a smart move for any officer and which proves disastrous for Fowler. Her goody-two-shoes approach to military leadership is inspired by a dysfunctional family history that left her in charge of a younger brother from an early age. Fowler’s over-developed senses of responsibility and fairness aren’t the worst things in the world, all things considered, but her brother’s contempt for her cues Fowler that her dutiful approach to life reflects insecurity and rigidity rather than reason and kindness.
In uniform, Fowler is mostly isolated from her peers until finding a friend in Lieutenant Pulowski, a signal officer who works at regimental headquarters. Pulowski is also an outlier; he hates the Army and, a proud fobbit, is scared to go outside the wire. He hides his fears behind a misanthropic contempt for gung-ho officers such as Fowler’s company commander Captain Hartz and regimental commander Colonel Seacourt. Pulowski rightly identifies both as nitwits completely made stupid by taking Army dogma too seriously, but his alienation isolates him from playing a meaningful role in the unit. Pulowski might hate Fowler on the same grounds he hates Hartz and Seacourt, but to his credit he recognizes under her Ms. Perfect exterior a darker, more cynical, better self awaiting nurture. Something about Pulowski’s insouciance appeals to Fowler, and soon they are not just hang-out buddies but clandestine lovers. Both recognize the oddness of the pairing; it’s not just for the sake of propriety they keep down-low the friends-with-benefits side of their relationship, it’s as much that, cowards at heart, they cringe at confronting the regiments’s amusement at discovering Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong and the most useless officer in the unit have paired up.
What Pulowski didn’t understand was the that when he said, “Go with the flow,” what she heard was, “Give in,” which happened to be her specialty, not his. It was exactly what she was doing when, an hour later, she crunched her way up to the E Company TOC and manned her desk in the plywood-floored front room of a double-wide trailer, starting a twelve-hour shift. The Army was all about giving in. Every decision, every order, every mission, every battalion update, every PT session. If your colonel ordered you to set up concrete T-walls inside the wire, you gave in–even if you thought that the walls could have been better used outside the wire. The flip side was that you belonged to a structure you could trust, with rules that you didn’t have to just make up. So the giving went both ways, and there was noting to distinguish one person from the next, nothing too embarrassing or too horrible to share. So far, despite everything, it had pretty much worked this way. The one exception had been her relationship with Pulowski, and she wouldn’t have had to keep that a secret if she’d been a guy. Then she could’ve told people that she fucked Pulowski. Boasted about it. She could’ve said, Goddamn, I banged the living hell out of this lieutenant an hour ago, which was true.
Fowler and Pulowski are happy together, which counts for something, and good for each other, too–she needs to loosen up and he needs to get motivated–but The Good Lieutenant’s plot works out twists of fate, situation, event, and character that result in catastrophe for them and several others. Their cowardice is part of the issue—prone to overcompensation, both lieutenants act rashly in efforts to prove themselves. Concern for appearances also factors. Constant exposure to the judgment of troops, NCOs, and superiors can cause any lieutenant to wither rather than thrive, and for women the problem is especially acute, as their looks and romantic lives are not only subjects of extreme interest to men but fretful ones in their own minds, too. Terrell makes this point in a short passage describing a visit by Fowler to the gym:
Army of One was the motto that hung over the mirrors in the Fort Riley weight room, right next to the porny photographs of competitors for the Mr. and Mrs. Fort Riley competition flexing and oiled up in their bathing suits. Fowler was in her regulation ARMY T-shirt and black gym shorts wondering what the hell Pulowski was seeing when he praised her body in bed. After three solid weeks of paperwork and overseeing [predeployment] packing, she looked like an Army of about fifteen. Her shorts felt a size too small and the small bung of soft flesh that drooped over the waistband was visible when she kept her shirt tucked in (as regulations required), giving her the profile of a deflated gray balloon, so she strove to keep her eyes on SportsCenter as much as possible instead.
That’s harsh, bringing up many touchy issues about the male gaze and female body issues, and it’s not certain that Terrell’s own authorial gaze doesn’t reinstantiate what it purports to dramatize and critique (nor am I completely innocent in this regard). To tread lightly around these issues, it’s not just women officers but male officers sans 20-inch arms and flat bellies who can relate. The point is Fowler’s realization that, for an officer, looking good is as important as being good and that, once more, she is falling short of the standard. The novel’s title is ironic, but in truth Fowler is far from a bad officer. Her junior enlisted soldiers, for example, seem to like her just fine, and her relations with her superior officers run the usual gamut from terrifying to supportive. Hartz and Seacourt, being fools and thus dismissible, really aren’t the problem in any case.
It’s the disapproval of hardcore male lifers in the unit that makes things complicated for Fowler and where Terrell locates most precisely the difficulty of being a “good lieutenant,” especially when the lieutenant is a woman. Fowler’s platoon sergeant Staff Sergeant Beale, an infantry company commander named Captain Masterson, and a Headquarters officer named Major McKutcheon, all Alpha-male hard-asses who reduce every problem and solution to their most brutal dimensions, dominate Fowler’s thoughts and make her keenly conscious of her shortcomings. She bungles even the easiest conversations with them, emitting flurries of passive-aggressive sparks they register as either disrespect or attempts at sucking up. In turn, they just ride her shit at every opportunity, not in a teasing, helpful way but to drive home the point that she is screwed-up and they are offended by her. They don’t taunt her sexually (though one can imagine how they talk about her behind her back), but it’s clear they are assholes who associate any and all of Fowler’s shortcomings with her gender. And what gives them the right to judge so harshly? Their willingness to brave danger and fight are not issues, but otherwise they make bad decision after bad decision, only to escape culpability by embodying and performing the tough-guy masculinity the military values most. From this perspective, they are exemplars of the toxic patriarchy that makes the military intolerable for many women. Classic examples of how hegemonic thinking perpetuates itself, they are crude men who insist their crudeness is what makes them great soldiers, and they justify their crudeness by flaunting their military savvy and warfighting prowess–as if there necessarily had to be a correlation and there were no other possibilities and if you didn’t agree you were in denial.
But Fowler, and Terrell, too, I believe, are not so sure it’s as simple as that. Beneath the insults, rudeness, and insubordination, the men collectively—Pulowski, also–pressure Fowler to understand she needs to drop her idealism, naivety, and basic dishonesty to be a more effective leader of soldiers in combat—or, at least, of soldiers like Beale, Masterson, and McKutcheon. Not to let them off the hook, but the best that could be said of them is that they want Fowler to be tougher, more decisive, less afraid to break a few rules, to speak more freely and be less guarded, be more dependably “one of them.” As the events of the novel play out, it’s hard to say they are entirely wrong, as the ending–or, rather, the beginning–seems to leave Fowler much sadder but also much wiser and toughened because of the death blows dealt soldiers under her leadership. Lieutenants learning the hard way is the stuff of many war tales, as in Tim O’Brien’s classic “The Things They Carried,” but The Good Lieutenant excels by portraying in detail and complexity what it’s like when the problems are compounded by gender. Now that we know Lieutenant Fowler’s backstory, we are left wondering what she makes of her life going forward.
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016.