Jim Fleming: Ellen Benedict was one of those first journalists to notice that American women serving in Iraq were fighting war on two fronts. In the field, they faced enemy combatants, but back on base they coped with pervasive sexual harassment and assault from their fellow American soldiers. Benedict spent three years interviewing women veterans of the Iraq war. Her first book was a nonfiction account called the "Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq." Now she's returned to the same subject in a novel called, "Sand Queen." Anne Strainchamps asked what the term means.
Benedict: Well "sand queen" is unfortunately a very derogatory term for a female soldier that's been in use among the troops in Iraq. It sounds sort of nice, and the first time I heard it I thought, "That's a catchy phrase." But it actually is a term for an unattractive woman who gets a lot of attention from the men because there are so few women deployed and it goes to her head and then she starts acting like a queen and then allows herself to be used by the men. So it's a very nasty term.
Anne Strainchamps: It was just an epitaph that captures so much about the experience of women soldiers in the Iraq War. You spent three years interviewing women who served there and you were one of the first to write about the way those women on the ground in Iraq were treated by their fellow male soldiers. How did you begin to here some of their stories? What were you asking them?
Benedict: Well actually they volunteered the stories. I started off these interviews because I was curious about why a woman would enlist in the military, especially when the war was going on. Some of these stories started coming up immediately, it's almost the first thing some of the women said. The whole experience was colored by the way they were disrespected and if not actually abused by the men they were serving with, who they had hoped to trust.
Strainchamps: Were there times when there were other, perhaps even deeper stories or experiences that women had that were harder for them to tell you about?
Benedict: Yes, I think the hardest thing for any soldier to talk about is their feelings of remorse when they come home. Not necessarily because of things they did, that they were commanded to do, you know, dropping bombs and shooting at snipers, or you know, returning fire. But because of the little everyday cruelties that weren't really necessary that they would enact against both the so-called enemy and sometimes against their own soldiers, including ones they saw as weak. And that's what I really wanted to get to with fiction, with "Sand Queen," because I felt that, um, there was more than they were telling me. I could see it in their eyes and their gestures and hear it in their silences. When their eyes filled with tears, or when they started to joke out of the blue, I felt oh there's something more, there's a story underneath here they can't bring out for one reason or another. And it would be cruel to them to force it out. But I can imagine only too well what it is between all the stories I have heard and the reading I've done, and that's where fiction steps in.
Woman Narrator: Settling onto my chair, I lay my M-16 across my knees and stare at the corral of sand between the tents and the wire. I know each grain of that sand by now, each pathetic tuft of dried shrub, each spot of rust on the wire's razor blades. Our little world. A second later two of the prisoners start a furious argument. One punches another in the jaw and in a flash the whole damn pack of them erupts into a full scale brawl. They're out of control, noses bleeding, guys rolling on the ground, punching and clawing, kicking in ribs, stamping on hands. I don't know what to do, except stand up here waving my arms. So I flick the safety off my weapon and fire.
Benedict: What does it really feel like deep down in the secret most part of your soul, to be a soldier and to see and do the things you have to do in war. What's it feel deep inside, and especially for a woman soldier. We've had almost no stories from the point of view of women soldiers about war ever in history. It's always been a male purview, we've had stories from female civilians, but not women soldiers.
Strainchamps: Well can you tell us something about your two characters? Let's start with Kate, how does she come into the war and what happens to her there?
Benedict: Kate Brady, at the beginning of the book, she's a nineteen year old, who comes from upstate New York. She's a country girl, and a lot of people she knows joined the military because there are very few jobs out there, but there's also a very strong national pride in that area and she enlists. But this is before 9/11, so she's a reservist military policewoman and she has no idea she's going to be sent to war and nor, at that point, does anybody else. And then like so many reservists and National Guards-people, she gets deployed after 9/11 in 2003 when we invaded Iraq.
Strainchamps: One of the things you describe, once Kate gets to Iraq and she's stationed on an Army base, she's dropped into an atmosphere in which there is a kind of constant, low level sexual harassment. Is that pretty much realistic, as far as you can tell?
Benedict: Right. I read studies that said that 90% of women in the military would report sexual harassment while they were serving, now it's hugely common. And it can be on the level of constant vulgar jokes, remarks about your body, you know, half joking passes made at you all the time, looking you up and down, stripping you with their eyes, that kind of thing. Or it can be worse, more aggressive and nasty. And just a constant sort of degradation that happens when people refer to you as nothing but a sex object day after day, night after night, month after month.
Strainchamps: What happens to Kate, your character?
Benedict: Well Kate has several different things going on at once. She's got a sergeant, who is very hostile to her and expressing it in sexual terms and he's got a little cohort of men who do whatever he does, so they join in. And then on top of it all she's guarding a prison and prisoners are furious at being imprisoned, and they taunt her and mock her and expose themselves to her. This is something that went on a lot at Camp Bucca, I heard it a lot from many people
and there was even a television report about it. And so she's getting this harassment from all sides all the the time, and it begins to eat away at her and change her personality. And she struggles more and more to try and keep a moral center in the midst of all this nastiness.
Female Narrator: Something hits me on the cheek so hard it spins me halfway around on my feet. I drop to my hands and knees, stunned. Am I shot? I touch my cheek. Blood. But before I have time to react a hail of stones comes flying at me, pelting me hard all over, banging off my helmet like bullets. Where the hell are the other MP's when I need them? Where's my team? I lift myself to my knees, the stones still coming at me, close my eyes and fire again. But this time I don't aim into the air. I aim right at the compound. Silence. Not even the echo of my shot since there's nothing for it to echo against. No sound but the ringing of it in my own ears. No more stones, nothing. Please God, don't let me have hit anyone. I don't want a body on my conscience, I don't want to get into trouble, please.
Strainchamps: Now in the meantime, there's a story of another woman, an Iraqi medical student. Tell us about her.
Benedict: Yes, Naema Jassim is the daughter of a professor of engineering and a doctor and a part of the upper class there, where they're educated secular. She and her family are driven out of Baghdad by the looting and the bombing, and they go down south right near the prison where Kate is. And then one night the American soldiers burst in and arrest her father and her little thirteen year old brother with no explanation and take them off. So Naema starts going, walking four kilometers to the prison everyday, to try and find out if they're there and if they're all right. And that's where she and Kate meet. And they end up, as the novel goes on, having a very profound and long-lasting effect on each others lives that neither of them can foresee.
Female Narrator: I'm getting freaked. No matter much I yell, and try to shoo away the wrinkly old couple and the rest of these damn locals, they won't budge. They just keep on crowding around me yelling in Arabic and pushing their photos into my chest. I'm about to poke one of them with my rifle, hard, when a female voice calls out from the crowd. "I speak English, do you need help?" Startled, I look around. An Iraqi girl about my own age separates herself from the mob, walks right up to me, and stares into my face with no fear at all. "You really speak English?" I ask, amazed. She studies me without answering. Her eyes, which are huge and greenish-gold, look suspicious as hell. "Yes," she says finally in a low voice, "I am able to translate if you'd like."
Strainchamps: I guess I'm wondering, to what extent you think gender can be a bridge between two combatant groups, because there are ways in which being women, they have more in common with each other than they do with some of their compatriots.
Benedict: Yes, I think that is true. Now I don't think the bond, the little moment of bonding that happened between the two of them is that likely to have happened, had one of them been a man. Because they're both women, they're not afraid of each other in the way they might be if one of them were a man. There just aren't as many barriers.
Strainchamps: The novel doesn't resolve either Naema or Kate's fates, sort of safe to say, nothing is completely wrapped up. What went into your thinking as you made that decision?
Benedict: Well, Tim O'Brien once said that any war story that ended on a note of hope or ties everything up is a lie, and that's a paraphrase, but I actually really believe that. I wanted to keep true to life, I really believe in not falling into a cheap shots or cliches or happy endings just because it's comforting at the end. I don't really want to be comforting. You know the war is still going on and people are still suffering and the consequences of war are lifelong, so there isn't an end. And to have made one would have been dishonest, that's how I feel.
Fleming: Helen Benedict is the author of "The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq." Her new novel is called "Sand Queen." She spoke with Anne Strainchamps.