Why I Write About Iraqis: Novelist Helen Benedict on the obligations of fiction

    

I am neither Muslim nor a war veteran, Middle-Eastern nor a foreign correspondent, so when people find out that I have written two novels (Wolf Season, Sand Queen) featuring an Iraqi woman and her family, their first question is often, “Why?”

This question arises because it is still so unusual for American novelists to write about Iraqis that people genuinely don’t understand my interest.

Of the increasing number of novels and story collections, and even movies, coming out of the latest Iraq War, only a smattering feature Iraqis as full human beings. Most do the same thing Vietnam war fiction did for so long – tell the war story entirely from the point of view of American soldiers, while the population of the country they occupy fades into background. When Iraqis do appear, it is usually as either a clownish interpreter or a villain.

This trope is even worse when it comes to women. For years, no Iraqi women have appeared in American fiction, except as wailing widows or black-clad figures in the distance. The only American fiction I know of, other than mine, that features an Iraqi woman as a full character is Matt Gallagher’s novel, Youngblood.

Why do we keep writing about the war and leaving out Iraqi women? After all, the UN tells us that more women and children die in today’s wars than men. Yet war remains, as it has for millennia, an almost entirely male story.

When it comes to the U.S. war with Afghanistan, we writers have done somewhat better. Flashes of War by Katey Shultz, The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Battacharya, and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini are all powerful works of fiction featuring Afghan women as fully realized characters. I might point out that all these authors are civilians, one is a woman, and two were not born in the U.S.

I was first drawn to writing about Iraq when we invaded in March of 2003 and began raining bombs down on the citizens of Baghdad. Very soon after “Shock and Awe,” as our initial attack was so gloatingly called, a blog called Baghdad Burning began appearing on the internet, written by an anonymous young woman who called herself Riverbend, a computer technician with English so perfect she sounded like an American college student.

I read that blog religiously. Riverbend’s thoughts and feelings were just as “like us” as my own daughter’s, yet she was describing day-by-day what it was like to live under the U.S. invasion – what it was like to live through the overwhelming, heart-freezing injustice of war.

I then began reading other Iraqi blogs, along with every translation I could find of Iraqi poetry and fiction, most of which was written by and about men before our invasion. I also turned to YouTube and found videos and documentaries made by Iraqis. The most remarkable was one made by an anonymous woman who put on a burqa, hid her handheld camera under it, and drove around the Iraqi countryside interviewing women about what they were suffering. What she was doing was so dangerous, she explained into the camera, that the video would only remain up on YouTube for a day or so. Sure enough, it disappeared. I only hope she didn’t disappear, too.

After that, I sought out Iraqis around New York, former interpreters for the U.S. military, journalists, or government, and their families, all of whom had been granted the special visas reserved for those who have served us for two years and passed over a year’s worth of security checks.

I met Nour, who had been imprisoned and tortured in Abu Ghraib at the age of 16 for writing a poem Saddam Hussein didn’t like. Having learned English out of love for language and literature, she later become a translator for an American journalist. She and the journalist were kidnapped in Baghdad and shot in the back. The journalist was killed, but Nour survived and came to the U.S. with the help of his widow.

I met Hala, who had fled Baghdad with her husband and children after her brother and 15-year-old son were killed in the war. She and her children spent hours with me, helping me with the kinds of details I needed to create my Iraqi characters. When her son, who was nine at the time, heard my English accent, he insisted I had written the Harry Potter books.

I met Mohanad, who had grown to love the American soldiers he had worked with as an interpreter in his country. He had taken the job because he hated the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and wanted his people to have a true democracy. He was now living in Albany, learning a trade and hoping to make a life free of war and death.

I met Yasir, who, as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, had saved many lives, risked his own many times, and had become close friends with his American sergeant. Now he was in Boston, studying. He and his wife gave me a bountiful and delicious Iraqi lunch.

With the help of all these generous people, and out of Riverbend and my reading, my characters Naema Jassim, her husband Khalil, and their son, Tariq, were born.

Now, as Wolf Season comes out, the Trump administration’s latest attempt to ban Muslims from our shores is about to go into effect on October 18, and we are once again in a political climate invested in dehumanizing and villainizing refugees. So, I fully expect to once more hear the question, “Why do you write about Iraqis?”

Here is my answer.

I write about Iraqis because we have hurt them so badly and taken no responsibility for it. Because we owe them. Because it is the mission of artists and novelists to fight stereotyping that reduces people to nothing but targets. Because Iraqis are human beings who deserve all the rights and dignity and sympathy and understanding that we ourselves think we deserve.

I write about Iraqis because all of us need to stop being afraid of the victims of our wars and brutality, and embrace them instead.


Helen Benedict is a professor at Columbia University and the author of seven novels, including the just-published Wolf Season, and her previous novel, Sand Queen, a Publishers Weekly “Best Contemporary War Novel.” She writes frequently about justice, women, soldiers, and war. Her coverage of sexual assault in the U.S. military inspired the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War, and her work instigated a landmark lawsuit against the Pentagon on behalf of victims of military sexual assault. Benedict has spoken at West Point, the U.S. Air Force Academy, Harvard University, TED Talks, and the United Nations, among others.

A recipient of both the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, Benedict is also the author of five works of nonfiction, including the book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq, and a play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. She lives in New York.

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PRETTY MUCH TRUE a sobering examination of the price paid by those on the home front of the War on Terror

Pretty Much True   Kristen Tsetsi aka Chris Jane

Pretty Much True

By Chris Jane

Penxere Press: Jan. 18, 2015

260 pages, $12.95

The last several years have seen women writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, addressing the manifold issues involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are, in general, distinguished by a focus on the experiences of returning soldiers and the effects on those on the home front of the “War on Terror.”

Roxana Robinson’s Sparta and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You follow a male and female soldier, respectively, as they try to negotiate the emotional land mines of civilian life in a home they no longer recognize. Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War offers a multi-faceted look into virtually every aspect of the war through several dozen pieces of flash fiction. Siobhan Fallon’s story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, explores life on the Fort Hood army base following the Iraq invasion in 2003. Laura Harrington’s Alice Bliss is a sensitive coming-of-age story about a girl whose father is fighting in Iraq. Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen depicts the Iraq experiences of a female soldier facing harassment from all quarters.

The latest addition to this impressive collection of fiction is Chris Jane’s Pretty Much True, an intensely focused look at the life of Mia Sharpe, a young woman who is coping with loneliness, anxiety, and depression after her long-time boyfriend/almost-fiance, Jake Lakeland, is deployed to Iraq as part of the invading forces. Mia is living near the base in Tennessee, where she has few friends and little in the way of a support system. Formerly a part-time college English professor, she has walked away from her work in frustration and taken up cab driving as a stopgap measure.

Pretty Much True follows Mia as she struggles to maintain her spirits against an onslaught of worries. Is Jake alive and will he return as the man she loves? How can she earn a living from her unpredictable income as a cab driver? What is she to do about her friend Denise, the wife of Jake’s best friend William, who appears to be straying? Why is she having difficulty developing a relationship with her neighbor Safia, whose nationality she is unable to determine? How will she manage to tolerate Jake’s manipulative mother, Olivia?

But the most intriguing aspect of the plot is Mia’s tentative friendship with one of her regular fares, “Doctor” Gary Donaldson, a damaged Vietnam vet who alternates between two realities, only one of which he shares with Mia. Donny is an intriguingly complex character who provides an ominous picture of one possible future waiting for Mia.

Chris Jane has written a riveting character study that convincingly depicts the distress experienced by those still at home while the people they love are halfway around the world in harm’s way, often incommunicado for weeks or months. The supporting characters are realistic, the plot arises organically from the characters and conflicts, and the dialogue is pleasantly idiosyncratic. The novel’s strongest feature is Mia’s narrative voice, which holds us to the spot and forces us to confront what this 12-year-long war is really like for those who are entangled in it – and what their lives will be like when it is officially “over.”

If you’re wondering about the book’s title, the source is Kurt Vonnegut’s surreal anti-war classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, which contains the now-famous lines, “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.”

Women Writers on the Iraq War: A Collection of Reviews & Interviews

With the situation in Iraq back in the news once again, it seemed like an opportune time to share my reviews of these books about the war and my interviews with the authors.  All are highly recommended.

Sparta cover art

Roxana Robinson — Sparta review    http://wp.me/p3EtWm-5R

Roxana Robinson — Interview     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6q

Flashes of War

Katey Schultz — Flashes of War review     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6E

Sand Queen

Helen Benedict — Sand Queen review     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-9k

Be Safe I Love You

Cara Hoffman — Be Safe I Love You review     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-aq

Cara Hoffman – Interview    http://wp.me/p3EtWm-aT

You Know When the Men Are Gone

Siobhan Fallon — You Know When the Men Are Gone review     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-bE

Siobhan Fallon – Interview    http://wp.me/p3EtWm-bM

stop_here

Beverly GologorskyStop Here review   http://wp.me/p3EtWm-dM

 

A conversation with Cara Hoffman on class, family, women in the Iraq war and PTSD

Cara Hoffman   Be Safe I Love You   

 

As someone who comes from a military family, it was important for me to tell this story about what war does to domestic life.

What led to your interest in writing about the Iraq War? Did you have a war-related novel in mind first, or a novel about a family dealing with poverty and class issues, or was it always about the challenges of homecoming?

It was always my intention to write about the wars the U.S. has been fighting this past decade because it’s part of the fabric of our culture, we’re steeped in it. For the working poor, who make up the majority of army personnel it’s even more immediate. As someone who comes from a military family, it was important for me to tell this story about what war does to domestic life. Exponentially more people than the one who enlists are affected by a deployment, a death, or a mental illness. We’re seeing this all unfold daily in the U.S., and we’ll be seeing it for a long time.

How did Lauren Clay come to you? I’m interested in the character you created, an academically gifted student with a rare musical talent who comes from a family that has fallen apart. Lauren is not your typical soldier, even beyond the fact that she is female.

Lauren is musically gifted but I don’t think she’s atypical of people in the military. There are plenty of musicians, artists, and creative people who enlist, especially if they don’t have another recourse to making money and can’t afford school. Lauren’s decision to join the army is good for her family economically, but bad for her personally and it’s this conflict that drives the central narrative. She trains to kill instead of continuing to train her voice.

Lauren is a classically trained singer with an opportunity to study at a prestigious school. I know you have a background in classical voice. Why did you choose to add this passion to your portrayal of Lauren Clay?

I trained as a classical musician, and still sing in a choir. (We’re doing Mozart’s “Great Mass in C Minor” this May!) Part of Lauren being a singer is simply about writing what I know; the other part has to do with the symbolism of sacred music and holy minimalism. Vocal music is primal, deeply emotional, something that requires immense training to perform. A book about war is well suited to all of these things.

Can you discuss Lauren’s increasing obsession with the Jeanne d’Arc basin oil fields in Canada? It is an unfamiliar place that provides haunting imagery, as well as a key symbol in the story.

Jeanne d’Arc is a salient symbol throughout the novel; a teenage soldier who had to disguise herself as a man, who suffered hallucinations, she’s the precursor and a counterpoint to Lauren, who is a grounded, capable, loving woman burdened by an enormous responsibility for her whole family. Jeanne d’Arc becomes a saint the way most saints do — connection to religious phenomena, and terrible torture. Lauren’s view of religion is cynical at best and often hostile, but she holds things sacred and makes sacrifices, she’s inspired by holy music and recognized for her gifts, she’s rational and practical, but is transformed by her service in the military, imprisoned by the needs of weak men around her. And unable to break free. The actual physical site is a mirror of the place she came from. These reflections and poles and “distorted mirrors” are an essential part of the narrative.

The relationship between Lauren and her younger brother Danny is central to the story and her motivations. Danny seems to be her reason for living, the way spouses or lovers often are for those at war, rather than her boyfriend Shane or her parents. Danny is such a special kid, a really well-drawn and memorable character. How does her love for Danny anchor her through her post-war storm?

Thank you. Danny and Lauren have a bond based on intellect and humor. They’ve cared for each other emotionally while their family was disintegrating, and Lauren has provided for Danny materially. Her main motivation in life is that he should do better than her, he should have everything, be happy, see beautiful things. Understand the world better. She believes deeply that Danny, if well cared for, has the power to transform the terrible environment they come from. Seeing him do well and preventing him from experiencing pain is her commitment to staying in the world. Whether she’s able to keep that commitment is the primary question of the novel.

There are certainly some memoirs and non-fiction accounts of war by women, which is a good thing. But it’s going to take about a generation, and a lot more women publishing fiction, before we can see if there’s truly a distinction [between war novels by men and women].

There are other novels about soldiers suffering from PTSD. But what I especially liked about Be Safe I Love You is that much of the stress in Lauren’s life is caused by her family’s situation and her relationships with her parents, rather than just her nightmarish experiences in Iraq. I loved the family scenes, which reminded me of the realism of Russell Banks and Richard Russo, who are the bards of rural upstate New York.

Thank you, Bill. I am very flattered to be compared to those guys. I love them both, and obviously we come from the same environments, so we are describing some of the same landscapes and poverty-related issues. A person’s early environment is a big contributing factor in PTSD, but I’ve yet to read anything about war that really explores that, and I wanted to write about it.

You have a distinctive prose style that is both muscular and lyrical. I was occasionally reminded of James Agee’s writing in A Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (although you avoid his Faulknerian sentences). Did you begin as a poet? Do you write poetry as well as fiction?

When I was a child I wrote poetry. The language in Be Safe all has a particular lyrical sense and meter and dynamic because I wrote it to mirror musical composition. I wanted it to be like a song. The phrasing and prose is very deliberate, but the language is not “tarted up like Faulkner,” as my brother likes to say.

What would you say distinguishes the recent flurry of books by female authors about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? What do women have to say that male authors don’t (or at least haven’t said yet)?

I don’t think we’ve seen enough fiction about war written by women to know if there is a difference yet. There are certainly some memoirs and non-fiction accounts of war by women, which is a good thing. But it’s going to take about a generation, and a lot more women publishing fiction, before we can see if there’s truly a distinction. I would say in general so far, there’s less aestheticising of violence done by women war writers. They don’t lovingly linger over the carnage, you don’t get the ambient sense of solipsistic machismo from it. There’s a maturity to it, less ambivalence. They’re not writing about being victims of the killing they signed up to do.

If you could put one book in the hands of President Obama, the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and members of Congress, what would it be, and why? Would you want every American to read it as well?

I would want every American to read Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz. It was written at a time when the U.S. government actively contributed to a plague raging unchecked throughout the world because they thought it would only kill queer people. The book is so filled with transgressive beauty, it’s staggering. I cry every time I read it.

What have you read recently that you recommend?

Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War. It’s a fantastically written, morally responsible, brilliant book, containing multiple perspectives. I’m very excited to be part of a panel with Katey and Helen Benedict at Word Bookstore in Brooklyn on April 24th. Helen’s writing on women veterans is groundbreaking. [See my review of Flashes of War here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6E; and my review of Benedict’s Sand Queen here:  http://wp.me/p3EtWm-9k]

I was intrigued by your biography. You have such an unusual life story that I think you have the material for a great memoir. What made you decide to drop out of high school to travel and work in the Middle East? How did a job delivering newspapers eventually lead to working as a full-time reporter? And I have to ask: How did you manage to gain admittance to an MFA program without a high school diploma or college degree? (For that alone, you are no doubt a heroine to many.)

Well, thank you. That’s a pretty big question. I didn’t like school from an early age because it interfered with the things I wanted to do and study. I was always working on a number of projects and ideas as a kid and an adolescent; and living upstate, going to schools with no funding and terrible teachers, was an immense drag. Deadening. I started skipping school in 9th grade, only going when there were tests, so I could maintain good grades. I read independently and did no homework, focused on voice lessons and music theory, reading literature, and writing. By 10th grade I went only for extracurricular things I was involved in—Allstate Choir or Model UN, I was still enrolled in AP classes and getting college credit. Finally I dropped out, got two jobs and my own apartment, and began writing. I worked seven days a week in a restaurant, and later in a bookstore. When I saved enough money, I left the country, but quickly learned that to make it on my paltry $1,500, I’d need to live in a squat or sleep outside, and that meant getting somewhere warm.

I lived for quite a while in Athens, Greece working under-the-table jobs and then later in Israel, working in an orchard and on a landscaping crew and meeting my son’s father, who was also a musician. When I came back to the States three years later, I’d nearly a whole manuscript and enough material for a lifetime. I’d also soon have a baby, but no means to support him, so I took a job for a weekly independent delivering papers, hounding the editor to let me write. Eventually a staffer couldn’t make it to cover a Teamsters’ strike and I got sent. It was my first assignment, and I actually had my baby with me. After that the editor put me on a beat covering environmental issues. I worked there for four years, moving my way up to the City Desk, amassing enough clips and doing enough investigative work to eventually get a job at a daily covering government and crime.

The whole time I was also writing fiction, reading lots of great stuff like Jean Genet and Celine and Zora Neale Hurston. The idea of studying any of these things at school seemed ridiculous and I never would have applied to graduate school at all, but I wanted to teach community college, and needed a MFA to do it — so I applied to the only school I was philosophically interested in (Goddard, which comes out of the tradition of John Dewey and the idea that education and experience are intricately linked). I was accepted based on a portfolio of fiction.

So Much Pretty – which was based on an abduction and murder I covered in my early 20s — sold the third semester of school, but I still wanted to teach. Community colleges are simply amazing places for dialog and social change, and class issues are not swept under the rug. They’re full of organic intellectuals, people who’ve had to work hard their whole lives, and generally have a depth of emotional and experiential intelligence that makes them some of the smartest, quickest people I’ve known. After I’d lectured at places like Cornell and Oxford, I valued my students and work in the Bronx more than ever, and was grateful I’d gotten the degree.

What are you working on now, or what do you have in mind for your next project?

I’m writing a novel about homeless bookish kids living in Greece, a woodland fire fighter living in the Pacific Northwest, and the poetry of John Donne.

BE SAFE, I LOVE YOU: a riveting portrait of a female soldier’s homecoming

Be Safe I Love You  Hoffman__Cara

Be Safe, I Love You

By Cara Hoffman

Simon & Schuster, 2014

304 pages, $26.00

The latest in a remarkable series of books by women about the Iraq War, Be Safe, I Love You tells the story of returning soldier Lauren Clay and the challenges she faces in re-entering the lives of her family, friends, and civilian society.

What makes these female-authored novels distinctive is the authors’ decision to focus on aspects of the war that usually fly under the radar of both media and public awareness: what it’s like to be a female in the military; what life is like for the wives (and, increasingly, husbands), children, and family members left behind; surviving the homecoming; coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; and adjusting to a world in which the war seems distant both literally and figuratively and civilians often have inaccurate and distorted views of the war and what our military personnel are doing while on deployment.

Hoffman’s book is both a fever dream of one soldier’s struggle with PTSD and a domestic drama about a splintered family and an isolated upstate New York town with little to offer the soldier or its civilian residents. When Lauren Clay arrives in Watertown, her severely depressed father Jack and precocious younger brother Danny are understandably overjoyed to have her home and in one piece. Seemingly. But it soon becomes evident to Lauren’s boyfriend Shane, best friend Holly, and even to Danny that “she is not herself.” She tries valiantly to “act as if” she is well and happy to be home, and in occasional moments, she is. But there are warning signs: she is sullen, distracted, and preoccupied. She has a hair-trigger temper and is particularly annoyed when people fail to do what she says. As a sergeant with a platoon under her command in Iraq at age 21, she is used to giving orders and being obeyed without hesitation.

“She’d come home to a world of fragile baby animals. Soft inarticulate wide-eyed morons with know-nothing epiphanies and none of them — not one of them — did what she said, which was beginning to grate on her, cut to the heart of how wrong things were. Still, she could accept that these people didn’t know how to lead or follow, but they could at least shut up. If anyone owed her anything for serving in Iraq it was to shut the fuck up.”

She refuses to talk about her experiences in Iraq or even what the war was like generally. It is a nightmare best ignored. When her father’s best friend, PJ, a Vietnam veteran, says she can tell him about Iraq later, she thinks, “She would not be wasting one more second talking about acts that shouldn’t be described and couldn’t be undone.” Later she thinks about the soldiers who relied on their religious faith to get them through the war. She didn’t understand how they could believe, and in time she couldn’t understand the war. “People loved this religious stuff because it actually made no sense. Just like the war made no sense. And she knew now for certain that feeling of mystery, that impenetrable false logic was necessary to make people do stupid things.” The morning after a fight with her boyfriend, Lauren realizes “[s]he’d seriously fucked things up with Shane but she wasn’t about to let him get close to the thing she brought home that lived inside her skin. And she needed to protect herself, make sure she didn’t get soft.”

We learn the key elements of Lauren’s back story. Following her parents’ divorce, she took care of her depressed and bed-ridden father and younger brother all through high school while having no contact with her mother, who remained incommunicado in Buffalo. Lauren is a gifted student and singer with a bright future at the college of her choice. But with the family’s money problems, she feels obligated to join the Army for the relatively lucrative pay. She puts her college education and singing career on hold to take care of her family the only way she can devise. During her time in Iraq, she is caught in the double pressure-cooker of her family’s needs and her duties as a sergeant in a surreal war environment.

Her thoughts of Danny helped keep her sane while in Iraq. “[S]he felt the world order itself in the sound of his voice, his throaty baby laugh. This was the thought she called upon in training, in transport, in the emptiness of waiting that would never again be called boredom. It was with her the whole time, that sound. And there was no way she would have come home without it. No place outside that sound where she could live. No home, no country, no body to inhabit. It was the last breath of music she still felt in her belly, a little fire that she needed to stoke and carry.”

We also learn that she became very close with a fellow soldier, Daryl Green, with whom she made plans to reunite and possibly work together in the Jeanne d’Arc oil basin off the coast of eastern Canada. Daryl remains a mystery to us, presented only through Lauren’s memories of their time in Iraq and thoughts of continuing their friendship at home. But something doesn’t feel right about this situation, and the foreboding feeling only grows as the story progresses. Lauren’s relationships with everyone except Danny, whom she adores, soon deteriorate and she becomes increasingly obsessed with visiting Daryl and moving ahead with their plans in order to establish the new future she desires. After reestablishing tenuous contact with her mother, who asks her and Danny to come visit, Lauren decides to make the trip, but only after a detour into Canada to visit Daryl and the coastal oil fields, to which she feels she must make a pilgrimage. The mystery deepens, the ominous mood increases, and the last quarter of the novel becomes a suspenseful psychological thriller as we watch Lauren’s untreated PTSD play out.

Lauren is trying to escape from herself, with little success. “[S]omehow she’d forgotten that she had not returned at all. The woman she was supposed to be, was meant to be, would have been, could never exist at all now, and she was stuck dragging around this ruined version of herself. She owed it to the memory of her real self to get rid of this doppelganger that she was trapped inside….”

Although the plot was compelling, I was equally impressed by the quality of Hoffman’s writing, which alternated between a powerful directness and moments of haunting prose poetry. The supporting characters of Shane and Holly, Shane’s three uncles (so similar they are known as “the three Patricks”), Lauren’s eccentric Gulf War-damaged vocal teacher Troy, and her mentally ill father are well-drawn and credible, and they play a key role in making Lauren’s story realistic and riveting. The reader cares about these people and wants things to turn out well for them.

Be Safe, I Love You is just Cara Hoffman’s second novel, but you will know you are in the hands of a master here. You can add Hoffman’s name to those of Benedict, Fallon, Robinson, Carpenter, and Schultz as writers who have shown us the true and long-lasting consequences and costs of war.

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War by Laura Harrington

Laura Harrington  Alice Bliss cover art

Today I’m pleased to welcome my first guest blogger, Laura Harrington, author  of Alice Bliss, one of several recent novels by women writers about the Iraq War and its consequences. Last year Harrington spoke as part of a panel hosted by Consequence Magazine at the AWP conference; the other panelists were Catherine Parnell, Siobhan Fallon (whose story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone will be reviewed here shortly), George Kovacs, and Bob Shaccocis. Harrington’s presentation/paper was entitled “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War.” In light of my recent reviews of Iraq War-related books Sparta, Flashes of War, and Sand Queen (with more to come), Harrington offered me the opportunity to publish her essay for readers of my blog.

Sparta cover art  Flashes of War  Sand Queen  You Know When the Men Are Gone

Laura Harrington

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War

AWP Panel, March 8, 2013, 9 a.m., Room 309: CONSEQUENCE magazine

Catherine Parnell, Siobhan Fallon, George Kovacs, Bob Shaccocis 

What do we know about the wars we are waging? The vast majority of us can choose not to pay attention, as if this choice is similar to choosing what toothpaste to buy or what television program to watch. What role does our distraction play in these conflicts? If we aren’t watching, can we be held responsible? When a war can last longer than a decade and requires neither our attention nor our participation, what does this do to our national identity? What do the words civic responsibility and service and sacrifice mean to those of us living in America now?

My personal life and my writing life have been deeply impacted by what we don’t talk about when we talk about war.

My father taught me a profound respect for silence. A navigator/ bombardier in WWII, he came home and had a nervous breakdown, and never talked about his experiences. I have been deeply influenced by my father’s silence, both its limitations and its extraordinary strength. He showed his devotion not by spilling his secrets, but by shielding me from them. In addition, he sparked a lifelong curiosity and empathy. He gave me the most profound gift you can give a writer: he taught me to pay attention to all that is not said, to be alive to the mysterious silences that surround us. And he inspired me to try to give voice to that silence.

As a playwright I’ve written about war for much of my career: from the warrior saint, Joan of Arc, to Napoleon in exile on St Helena, from the destruction of the library in Louvain, Belgium in the first days of WWI, to four very young survivors encountering each other in the last days of the Civil War. I’ve even written a comedy about Civil War re-enactors who get their fondest wish and fall through a hole in time.

Did I reach anyone? Enlighten anyone? Does anyone in America want to go to a play about war, no matter how well you craft the story? Maybe not. Imagine this scene: Husband and wife at breakfast table. She says, “Honey, let’s go see that play about water boarding.” Actually she won’t get to suggest seeing that play because no one will produce that play.

What’s a playwright to do? If the medium you are working in is hostile to the difficult subject that obsesses you, do you retire? Retool?

On commission I wrote a thirty-minute, one-act, one-woman musical – Alice Unwrapped – about a 14-year-old girl whose father is MIA in Iraq. She copes with this crushing uncertainty by using duct tape and Kevlar to create a homemade version of the armor she imagines her father is wearing. Plus combat boots. Plus a bike helmet. And goes to high school in this outfit. All while trying to take care of her little sister and manage her mother who won’t leave the bedroom.

The revelation was how “relatable” this kid was. Audiences laughed and cried with Alice, and recognized her deep sense of honor as she tried to take care of her family in her father’s absence. I seemed to have found a new key to writing about war. Put a kid center stage, have her cope with missing her dad, and all the other challenges of growing up, all while the war acts as the unseen protagonist.

My inspiration, or compulsion in writing Alice Bliss, was to tell the stories we never hear, the stories we sweep under the rug, the ones we label “collateral damage.” My challenge became: how do we lift that which we prefer to ignore into the spotlight and make it absolutely unforgettable?

This is the task of the artist, in whatever medium we choose.

I learned that there’s an invisible army in our midst. An army of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives and children of soldiers who are deployed. According to the Department of Defense, only 37 percent of military families live on military installations; the remaining 63 percent live in over 4,000 communities nationwide. Your community and mine. They live around the corner, down the street, in the house next door, in the apartment above or below us.

There are more than 1.7 million military children and teens scattered across the country. They feel proud and angry and confused and frightened and worried and every other emotion that is part of growing up. But each emotion is amplified by the war and every fear it raises, and how achingly personal and specific that fear is to each one of those children.

Most of us have the luxury of thinking the war is distant; these children do not. They live with this war, day in and day out; they wake up with it, they fall asleep with it; it is woven into the daily fabric of their lives. They are expected to carry on at home and at school, to pretend that they do not have a parent who is risking his or her life, to pretend that they are not consumed with worry, that their daily life is not affected by this absence.

These children –- our children — are staring down a long year of a parent’s deployment or re-deployment, living with the fact of a father or mother in harm’s way, a euphemism we all accept even though it mocks the harsh reality of every soldier’s experience. To those fighting, and those at home waiting and praying, what occurs during deployment goes so far beyond the word “harm” as to be ludicrous. And we are not even talking about the long lasting “harm” of post-traumatic stress, or the shockingly high incidence of loss of limbs. This is part of our fuzzy language, fuzzy thinking, fuzzy policy, which creates a vague sense of unease amongst the general populace, but does nothing to goad us into action.

How can we share the burdens of this war more equitably? Should we take a page from WWII, and adopt compulsory military service, higher taxes, gas and oil rationing, War Bonds, Victory Gardens, scrap and metal collections?

Perhaps because we live with the illusion that our current conflicts cost us so little, we shrug our shoulders, turn a blind eye and allow it to go on and on and on.

These burdens should be shared by everyone in our country. And, I would like to argue, by men and women writers alike. Do we give equal time and more importantly, equal weight, to men and women writing about war? And if not, why not? How does the storyteller impact not only the conversation, but our attitudes and beliefs about war?

Here’s what I’ve noticed recently about books about war. Men, since they have been on the front lines longer than women, get the battle scenes while the battles at home are relegated to the back-burner. We need to acknowledge that the risks of war are shared by everyone involved, both those deployed and those at home. When a father or mother is killed, a family is fractured. Forever. And how best to experience and understand the nature of that fracture than through the family’s eyes? Yet we see this part of the story –- the collateral damage as experienced by wives, children, parents, etc. — as secondary to the main event. What if we reversed the way we look at this?

Let me get specific. There are several wonderful books that have been written in the past year about the Iraq war which are getting a lot of play. I’m thinking of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, David Abrams’ Fobbit. Last year it was Sebastian Junger’s War and Karl Marlantes’ What It Means to Go To War. In newspapers and online, these books are often written about together, the authors are sometimes interviewed together (recently Fountain and Powers in the NY Times). This is all great. I am a fan of these books.

But it’s fascinating that the books written by women about the Iraq war are rarely mentioned at all, and as far as I have seen, never mentioned with the men’s books. This is not just my novel, but also Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, Kristin Hannah’s Home Front, Johanna Trollope’s The Soldier’s Wife, to name a few.

This is disturbing to me for several reasons. Leaving the probable sexism aside, all of these books deal with the costs of war in one way or another; but the women’s books deal with the costs that we rarely see and almost never talk about, the costs borne by women and children.

Celebrating the male experience of war, intentionally or not, celebrates war, and is in the great literary tradition of glorifying the power of personal sacrifice in the theatre of war.

I believe that this is a larger story than just which books garner attention. It’s a story about how we think about war, how we imagine it and talk about it, and how we perpetuate myths of heroes and anti-heroes alike.

When Life Magazine published photographs of the fallen soldiers following Hamburger Hill in Viet Nam, it was instrumental in turning the tide against the war. When the NY Times, this fall [2012], published the photographs of the US dead, there was no public outcry whatsoever.

Until we can hear the stories of all who are impacted by war, soldiers and civilians, the families who are left behind, the families who are inadvertently caught in the struggle, we are lying to ourselves. We prefer the shine of brass, the extraordinary design of drones, the comforting flaunting of our military might. Writers can lift the curtain, expose the flimflam, push us to engage.

What will awaken us to this legion of hurt among our own service men and women, their children and families, whether they are serving abroad or coping with physical and emotional wounds at home? What will awaken us to the unspeakable destruction of land and life wherever we are dropping bombs? Does the entire nation have a hurt locker where we hide this war and its costs?

What would happen if we were to open that hurt locker and look inside?

What would happen if the book in your hands brought these questions into the light and these characters into your heart?

 

 

SAND QUEEN tells the brutal truth of women in the Iraq War

 

Sand Queen

Sand Queen

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.