Collateral Damage in America

A conversation with Helen Benedict

By Jan Alexander

Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict’s latest novel, Wolf Season (Bellevue Literary Press)--her seventh-- cuts right into the current tenor of American culture, with characters who are haunted by the violence of war, including sexual violence, and bursting with rage.

Wolf Season is set not in quite the present day, however, but in that distant era of 2015. It is her third book about the Iraq War and its lasting impact on American veterans and Iraqi refugees. According to figures from the Pew Research Center the number of Americans who served in the Gulf Wars since 1990 amounts to only about two percent of the total U.S. population, but when Benedict spoke about her new book at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn in October, it felt as if she were describing seeds of anger and mistrust that have been germinating in the country for at least a decade and a half.

Every war changes the societies involved, but also brings self-examination of society through art and literature. Benedict interviewed more than 40 Gulf War veterans for her 2009 non-fiction book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, then followed up with her 2011 novel Sand Queen, a story that revolves around 19-year-old Kate Brady, an enlistee guarding the prison at Camp Bucca in 2003, and Naema Jassim, a young Iraqi medical student whose father and little brother are being held behind the razor wire there.

Wolf Season catches up with Naema 12 years later, when she is a refugee in upstate New York and her life intersects with those of Rin, a traumatized woman veteran, and Beth, the wife of a Marine deployed in Afghanistan as the story opens.

With these three books Benedict has become part of the pantheon of contemporary novelists who write about war. Matt Gallagher, David Abrams, Phil Klay, Kevin Powers, and Elliot Ackerman are all writers who are Gulf War veterans themselves. Benedict is not, but she’s been covering violence against women as a journalist and fiction writer throughout her career, and has testified to Congress on sexual assault in the military.

In recent months she has been speaking out on the importance of imagining life from the perspective of one’s ostensible enemies and how fiction, by forcing the reader to imagine other lives, creates compassion. Hosting a panel about literature and conflict at the Center for Fiction in New York in November with Dalia Sofer, Matt Gallagher, Cara Hoffmann, and David Abrams, she talked about her experience counter-demonstrating at the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, saying “These white supremacists had clearly never given a moment’s thought to what it was like to be an African American, or an immigrant, a Muslim or a Jew or anyone else they were targeting. On the contrary, they were invested in not thinking about these matters, the better to demonize the people they wished to hate.”

Benedict, 65, was born in London and grew up peripatetic, with American anthropologist parents who took her with them in their fieldwork. She is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and lives in New York with her husband, the writer Stephen O’Connor. She talked with Neworld Review about wars both actual and internal.


Neworld: Without giving too much away, I’ll say that in both Wolf Season and Sand Queen, women soldiers are raped by men in their own platoon. Kate in Sand Queen ultimately reports the rape and the consequences are terrible. Hollywood is now making an effort to change predatory male behavior, Democrats in Washington are trying. Has the military done anything about it?

HB: Human Rights Watch came out with a report a few years saying a woman who reports a sexual assault in the military is 12 times more likely to be punished than the man who commits one. Usually the punishment is that she’s given a job that may put her life in danger. And then there are women who are dishonorably discharged, so they lose all their benefits. There’ve been a lot of small reforms, but they’ve not done them very well or very convincingly. A lot of the sexual harassment training videos put the blame on the women. The subliminal message is if you do this don’t get caught, or it’s the woman’s fault because she drank too much or went somewhere alone.

Neworld: Something else that struck me in your writing was the way military enlistees have been misled. In The Lonely Soldier you wrote about how recruiters lie outright, and the recruits actually sign a contract that says none of the promises have to be kept. In Sand Queen, Kate has Christian parents who wanted her to join the army and proselytize, while she thought military duty would toughen her up in a good way. It feels like a whole culture of deception.

HB: Among the veterans, some have expressed anger in an outward way, but a lot of them internalize it and blame themselves. Why did I allow myself to be duped like this, why did I allow myself to be used by this war machine? The amount of self-loathing that soldiers have to grapple with, and the search for how to feel like a good person again--that’s a theme in both novels. In Wolf Season, there’s a character named Louis who is a veteran trying to deal with a guilty conscience, and one of the ways he tries to make good is by volunteering at a refugee center in Albany, NY, to help refugees resettle. The refugee center is a real place, so I went there as part of my research.

Neworld: Then there’s the character Rin, who lives in a ramshackle farmhouse with her daughter Junie, who was born blind, possibly due to what happened in Iraq. Rin hates Iraqis and shoots at trespassers, but you slowly reveal the complications that left her unhinged, so that the reader sympathizes.

HB:. A lot of the characters do some awful things, or have done some awful things. But you can have sympathy with a character even if you don’t fully like them. I think that’s a real complexity to explore in fiction.

Neworld: Beth is another complex character, and perhaps harder to like than Rin. She does something unnecessarily destructive, and she escapes into alcohol when her son needs her most. Then her husband, Todd, comes home on furlough and beats her. Was it challenging to get into the heads of that family?

HB: I knew at the start that Beth was going to be the catalyst for something very harmful, so I had to create a character who did that half wittingly, half unwittingly. But because of her negative attributes, I had to work hard at understanding her. With Todd, it was important to give him a backstory. Where I hoped to draw the sympathy for him was that you knew that, inside, he wasn’t really a violent guy, not suited to war at all, but he’s thrown into this brutal life and it brutalizes him because there isn’t enough in him to push back.

Neworld: Actually, most of your novels have been about characters in problematic circumstances that led them to do what they did.

HB: It’s true, I tend to write about characters who are outsiders in one way or another. A lot of my characters have come from very harsh backgrounds. My first novel, A World Like This, starts out in a girls’ prison. The main character tried to strangle her mother, and as the novel goes on you come to see why.

Neworld: It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of you in these characters.

HB: It’s partly because I don’t like to write about anyone who’s like me. It bores me silly. But I think it does have to do with my whole biography, probably. When I was a kid, we lived for two and half years in two different islands in the Indian Ocean, and I didn’t go to school, I ran around kind of wild. Then I went back to England and this posh girls’ school, and I didn’t fit in at all. I was one of these loner misfit kids, and that may have planted the roots. Then I went from this school of 500 posh English girls to Berkeley High School circa 1967. One year I was studying King James I, the next year I was studying The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I got very politicized in Berkeley. It was like being let out of a cage. But then we went back to England and I got put back into the school of 500 girls, stuffed back in the cage.

Neworld: And as you’ve said, imagination plays a big role in writing fiction. It wasn’t viable for you to actually go to Iraq, so what did it take to relive the war through the stories of those who’d been there?

HB: To go to Iraq I would have needed to be embedded and cover battles, or hide in a basement and spend $500 a day for fixers and body guards. But also, when you enlist in the military you sign a gag order. There are things you agree not to talk about to outsiders, so it wouldn’t have made sense for met to talk to people on active duty. With Iraqis, too, it was much better to interview them where they were safe and felt free to talk without endangering themselves and their families. I’ve traveled to other predominantly Muslim countries and spent time in mosques and markets, but when I interviewed people I asked them what does the air look like, what are the different colors of the sand, what’s the first thing you hear when you wake up. The soldiers had lots of photographs, and that really helped, and there was a lot on Youtube. Then you fill in the gaps. I don’t find it that hard to imagine driving through the desert in a small sand-filled Humvee, crammed up in a heavy uniform, how miserable that would feel.

Some people wanted to talk and we’d have interviews that went on for six hours. But for some it was quite traumatic to talk about what had happened. One of the girls had a panic attack in the middle of the interview and she’d have to stop. That’s when you look at somebody’s face and you know there’s a memory that’s really, really painful, but you can make up what that is in a novel, without having to hurt this person by having them say more.

Neworld: Part of the way Rin copes with her trauma is by keeping three wolves in the wooded area of her property, behind a hurricane fence although there’s contention about the safety. Three mystical wild animals, potentially dangerous, possibly misunderstood. Symbolic or not?

HB: A lot of people thought I made the wolves up as some kind of grand metaphor, but that too came out of an interview. One of the veterans I interviewed did indeed live in the woods with wolves and a child she conceived in Iraq who has a disability, though not the same disability as Junie. The image of a woman living barricaded in the woods with wolves and a disabled child stayed with me. Once I created the wolves I had to learn how you actually look after them. So I went to a wolf preserve upstate. I spent many hours alone watching five or six wolves. They’re so beautiful. They can befriend you and let you pet them, but they can turn in a minute if something smells wrong, or they feel afraid, or they get too rough in their play. In the novel, they’re beyond the reach of our human ability to mess up one another. I think that’s part of Rin’s attraction to them, but every character sees something different. Animals are ultimately unknowable, and we project whatever we need to see onto them.

Neworld: The wolves are a force especially in the lives of the three children in the novel, each a war victim in their own way. Were you thinking of the repercussions of the war on families?

HB: Oh, very much. If I were going to sum up what Wolf Season is about, I’d say it’s the long reach of war, how it affects the people who go to war and those who live around them and those who love them, and how it’s entered American life in many ways. Then there are the refugee children. I’ve interviewed Iraqi families with kids who have been able to bounce back so that you’d never know what’s happened to them, at least to a certain extent. I met one nine year old boy whose older brother had been killed in Baghdad. I walked in there and the mother said, “Mustapha, this is Helen Benedict, she’s a British author.” He goes, “You wrote Harry Potter!” His eyes lit up. I said no, I didn’t, and he said yes you did. Then he said, “I’m a writer too,” and he showed me one of those books you make in school with paper stapled together. He’d written a story about bad G.I.s, and drawn pictures. I asked what are those things in the picture. He said those are bombs. But I have hope that children are resilient.

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