By Helen Benedict
Soho Press, 2011
315 pages, $25
Something happens when women enter certain environments that have previously belonged solely to men. Since men are instinctively tribal, a “warrior” culture develops, whether literal or figurative. It could be a physically demanding work environment that has long been the domain of men. It also occurs in athletic competition and, most intensely, in the military, particularly during war.
My theory is that men at war are, in some ways, more threatened by women than by the enemy. To be hurt or defeated by the enemy is an inherent risk in war, as it is in sports. It may be bitter, but it can be accepted with some measure of dignity and one’s manhood intact. But to be shown up, outperformed, or defeated by a woman is to be humiliated and emasculated, the ultimate defeat for a man. It is utterly unacceptable. For this reason, the women must be driven out or, at the very least, neutralized as a threat. With an end that is so crucial to a man’s identity and self-esteem, any means are justified.
This mindset is central to the events in Sand Queen, the first novel about the Iraq War written by a woman. Helen Benedict, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, published a nonfiction book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon Press), in 2009. It inspired an award-winning documentary, The Invisible War, and led to Benedict twice testifying before Congress on the issue of women in the military.
Sand Queen tells the stories of 19-year-old American soldier Kate Brady and Iraqi medical student Naema Jassim in alternating chapters. They encounter each other in 2003 when Brady is a guard at Camp Bucca, a makeshift prison in the desert near the Kuwait border. Or as Kate puts it, “in the poorest, bleakest part of the desert. Address: The Middle of Fucking Nowhere.”
Kate is a naïve small town girl from upstate New York who joins the Army Reserve before 9/11, never expecting a war in the Middle East or to be called up and sent to a place like the Iraqi desert. Not surprisingly, she has trouble adapting to the harsh conditions at Camp Bucca. “We work twelve-to-fifteen hour shifts, and even so I can never sleep. It’s too damn hot and I’m sharing a tent with thirty-three snoring, farting members of the male sex, not to mention the prisoners only a few meters away, chanting and screaming all night long.” Her squad leader, Staff Sergeant Kormick, chooses Kate to serve as an occasional liaison to the local Iraqi civilians. She is dubious. “He’s got the idea that the sight of a female soldier will win hearts and minds. We’ve just pulverized their towns, locked up their men and killed their kids, and one GI Jane with sand up her ass is supposed to make it okay?”
Naema and her family have fled the chaos of Baghdad to stay with her grandmother. She joins a group of local residents who make a daily pilgrimage to the camp checkpoint to inquire about their missing male family members. Because Naema speaks English, she becomes the de facto spokeswoman for the group and interacts with Kate.
In following Kate and Naema, Benedict shows readers the contrasting experiences of two well-intentioned young women in a war where little makes sense. Kate struggles to survive the boredom of long days in a guard tower keeping watch over endless stretches of sand that reach to the horizon. She attempts to bond with the other two women in her platoon, Yvette and “Third Eye,” but meets with only limited success. The women are guarded and defensive, aware of their tenuous position among the ranks of the men. The male soldiers are portrayed as ignorant, belligerent, and sexist louts, with only a few exceptions. The men have closed ranks and always protect their brothers in arms first and foremost, so Kate and the other young women are always walking on eggshells, self-conscious of how everything they say and do, and how they appear, is perceived by the men.
The conflicts sharpen when a sergeant assaults Kate and attempts to rape her. This is the turning point in her steady devolution from pleasant young woman to amoral robot soldier. She experiences the same emotional chaos as any victim of such an attack, compounded by the complexities of the military environment. Can she report what happened? Will they believe her? How will the officers and her fellow soldiers treat her? No, she decides, nothing good can come of this. She will say nothing and “soldier on.” But now she is a ticking time bomb. And to add insult to injury, she is now referred to by the men as a “sand queen,” a term for an unattractive female soldier who receives male attention because she is the best of the limited options available, and who then begins to believe she is actually special and desirable.
At the same time, Naema is trying to learn the status of her father, who had previously been imprisoned and tortured by Saddam Hussein’s secret police, and her younger brother, Zaki, who loves to play guitar. In exchange for Naema’s help communicating with the locals, Kate agrees to try to find out about Naema’s father and brother. In time, she encounters both of them, with surprising results.
Kate is also trying to maintain her relationship with her long-time boyfriend at home, Tyler. But she has developed an attraction to the platoon’s one genuinely caring guy, which only complicates her life further. On a parallel track, Naema longs to be reunited with her boyfriend, Khalil.
As Sand Queen progresses, we observe the changes that the war has wrought on both Kate and Naema. For Kate in particular, it is a downward spiral of anger, hurt, paranoia, and contempt for the military’s fecklessness: she comes to despise the leaders who have supplied the soldiers with Vietnam-era equipment and seem generally unaware of what is needed to fight this particular war in this place, and she both fears and hates the enlisted men, who engage in a relentless pattern of harassment against the women, of both the sexual and fraternity hazing types. Her physical and mental health deteriorate steadily, but there seems little she can do about it. “I’ve dropped twelve pounds since I arrived in this sandpit and my period has stopped. My fingernails have turned weird, too, all weak and flabby. And my hair’s falling out by the handful. But then, all of us are sick one way or the other. Some say it’s sandfly fever, some say it’s contaminated water. We call it the Bucca bug.”
While the two narratives are compelling reading, Benedict does occasionally editorialize, inserting harangues and broadsides in the mouths of her characters. She attacks the Bush administration, the military leadership and culture, the incompetence and rampant sexism of many soldiers, all the usual targets. To be fair, Benedict also criticizes Saddam’s regime and even the Iraqi people on a few occasions. Her venom is mostly reserved for American targets, but the Iraqis come in for a few sharp jabs as well.
Early on, Naema says, “I wonder how much that little American soldier I met today understands of what she doing to us. If I see her again, I would like to ask her. How would you feel, I would say, if I tore your mother’s children away from her, as you have done to mine? How would you feel if we flew over your cities and towns, dropping missiles and cluster bombs until your dead were lying in the street, shredded and putrefying? How would you feel if we dismantled your army and police, and destroyed the power that cleans your water, works your traffic lights and illuminates, heats and cools your homes? How would you feel if, having crippled your defenses, we opened the way for criminals and fanatics to come in and rob and murder and rape you – and then, when you tried to protect yourself, we arrested or shot you for being a terrorist? How would you feel if we drove you from your homes, scattered your friends and lovers and families, killed your children…? Yes, I would like to ask her all this, but I will not. For what could she tell me? She is young and ignorant. Nothing but a puppet.”
While the character’s voice is similar to that of Naema, one can hear Benedict coming through strongly. Still, it is hard to fault her for being impassioned, in light of what she learned while researching and writing The Lonely Soldier. War is a subject that makes it difficult to remain objective and dispassionate.
Midway through the novel, Naema describes the particularly evil nature of American and British cluster bombs, before changing direction and taking aim at her own people. “But then, what did we do when Saddam gassed the Kurds with his own demonic weapons? And what did we do when he slaughtered the Shia, my mother’s people, stole their water, dried up their fields and destroyed their livelihoods? We, too, can be sheep.”
Sand Queen picks up speed in the second half, barreling down the highway like the Army’s miles-long Humvee caravans. Readers will be rooting for something good to happen to Kate and Naema but, as in most wars, they will be repeatedly disappointed. If war is indeed hell, one should not expect there to be an oasis or sanctuary.
Sand Queen is an important novel. Like Katey Schultz’s recent short story collection, Flashes of War, it should be required reading for everyone in the Obama administration and every member of the U.S. House and Senate. It would be nice if every citizen were to read it too. The brutal power of the story, its fearless illumination of the realities of the Iraq War, and the quality of the writing make for a riveting and unforgettable read.