After spurring an investigation of internal violence in the armed forces, the journalist explores the same themes through fiction.
Image by Emma O'Connor. Courtesy SoHo Press
In February 2011, seventeen survivors of military sexual assault filed a class action lawsuit against the Pentagon and former defense secretaries Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld, asserting that the military failed to properly investigate and prosecute claims of sexual abuse within the armed forces, perpetuating a culture of violence and secrecy. The case was inspired by The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, Helen Benedict’s 2010 nonfiction account of the dual war waged by female soldiers—against the enemy and against their own colleagues. According to the Defense Department’s calculations, one out of every three women in the military has suffered sexual assault. While 3,192 reports of abuse were filed in fiscal year 2011, the DOD estimates the real figures to be closer to 19,000.
Benedict has testified twice before Congress on behalf of service members both male and female who have survived harassment, assault, and rape, maintaining that while “violence is endemic to the military… our troops are not supposed to be enacting this violence on one another.” She interviewed forty female veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan for her nonfiction project; her latest work, Sand Queen, is a novel rooted in the same research. Sand Queen chronicles the parallel stories of Kate, an American soldier, and Naema, an Iraqi medical student, and the wide gulf that separates their experiences of the Iraq War. As Benedict explains below, the “territory of fiction” granted her the freedom to explore the stories behind the interviews she conducted, or the “interior experience of living through a war.”
The following conversation was recorded in October 2011, and recalls old dilemmas in a new era. The military first vowed to eliminate rampant sexual abuse in its ranks in the aftermath of the 1991 Tailhook scandal, which involved the assault of female officers by naval pilots at a convention in Las Vegas; last June, thirty-eight women at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas came forward to report assault at the hands of their training instructors. “It’s an outrage that we aren’t prosecuting our people involved here,” said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month, when NBC’s Natalie Morales noted that 240 cases were prosecuted out of the more than 3,000 reported last year. Benedict discusses ongoing military negligence in the context of her work, as well as the “dark period” of accepting administrative talking points and other media failures at the outset of the Iraq War and today.
––Interview published courtesy of Richard Wolinksy
Richard Wolinsky: Sand Queen seems to put the reader into the mind of an American female soldier and an Iraqi woman during the war in 2003 in a way that nonfiction can’t achieve.
Helen Benedict: The role of fiction is to go into the human soul, to go into the places real people are reluctant to talk about or even look into. For The Lonely Soldier, I interviewed women who’d served in Iraq with many different branches of the military, but as open as they were with me, there were still those moments when they fell silent or their eyes would fill with tears or they’d deflect questions with jokes or start to shake. In those silences, I knew there was another story going on, one they couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about, which was the interior experience of living through a war—what it really felt like and what you thought privately. That’s why I needed to turn to the territory of fiction.
Richard Wolinsky: What about the decision to bring in Naema?
Helen Benedict: After all, this war has two sides. We’ve paid a fair amount of attention to our soldiers, and the trauma they’ve been through. There has been a lot of media attention about post-traumatic stress disorder, which is important and good, but there’s the other side: the Iraqi civilians who have been so decimated by a war which created millions of refugees and hundreds of thousands of deaths. There has been maiming and birth defects as a result of the pollution of war, the poisons of war, and the bombs themselves. I wanted to address the innaccurate stereotypes about Iraqi women head on by bringing an Iraqi woman of education—a medical student—alive, and making her human as our friends are human.
Richard Wolinsky: But you don’t plot in advance. When you created the characters, were you sure about what their interactions would be?
Helen Benedict: I did have an idea about why they would meet and how, and an idea about the pivotal event in the novel, because it came out of something a real soldier had told me.
Richard Wolinsky: What was the true story this is based on?
Helen Benedict: One of the women I interviewed was a prison guard in the first and biggest American prisoner-of-war camp in Iraq, which was called Camp Bucca, right by the Kuwait border. She told me that her first job was to man—we don’t even have a name for it—woman the checkpoint. Iraqi civilians would come every morning at dawn to find out what had happened to their brothers and sons and husbands who had been arrested and put into this huge prison, and some of them could speak English.
Early in the war, there were interactions between the soldiers and the civilians. Sometimes they would chat, or trade sunflower seeds for jewelry, and that gave me the idea of how Kate and Naema could meet. Naema would speak English and make a deal with Kate. “I’ll interpret for you and help you deal with the crowd if, in exchange, you take a photograph of my father and brother who have been arrested, and find them and tell me if they’re alive and safe.”
Richard Wolinsky: It seemed that later on in the novel you might have originally intended for more interaction between these two characters.
Helen Benedict: I wanted to be realistic. It would not have been realistic for Kate and Naema to become best buddies and see each other all the time. That doesn’t happen in a war. It was realistic that they could meet, interact, and have an effect on each other’s lives in a way that’s very profound. The way it evolved wasn’t so much a surprise to me because I know enough about how war works and what it was like there from my interviews and research. I didn’t want any soldier or Iraqi to read this and say, “that never would have happened.”
Sand queen is a derogatory term that’s specific to the Iraq war, which comes mainly out of the army. It means an unattractive woman who is the object of a lot of attention from men because women are so scarce… it summarizes the denigrating attitude that so many military men have towards military women.
Richard Wolinsky: Other fiction writers will say, “if there’s a choice between telling the facts and giving a sense of truth, the truth is more important.” In Sand Queen, I felt that in creating a fictional view, you still wanted to stay very much within the context of fact.
Helen Benedict: What I wanted to do was keep it completely plausible. But I wanted to get to a deeper truth than I could get to in my nonfiction work with this subject. I don’t think they have to be contradictory. I needed the freedom to invent characters and a story to get to that deeper truth, because it would have been very hard to get any soldier or Iraqi to tell me about their really deep feelings.
Richard Wolinsky: This is all set against the background of things that happened and people you interviewed, so I’d like to go into some of the details that simply stunned me. Rape plays a major part in this book, and I understand that you wrote a play about a class action suit against the Pentagon by women in the army because the army refused to deal with rape.
Helen Benedict: The suit is on behalf of fifteen women and two men who were sexually assaulted and/or raped in the military, not just the army. It was inspired, in part, by The Lonely Soldier, which described the rates of sexual harassment, assault, and rape within the military of female and male soldiers, perpetrated by their comrades, not by the enemy, not by outsiders. The statistics are horrifying. Somewhere between one in five and one in three women are sexually assaulted while serving alongside their comrades.
Richard Wolinsky: There’s a scene where two soldiers assault Kate.
Helen Benedict: It isn’t an exact replica of any one story I heard any more than the characters are. They’re not conglomerate characters or disguised real people, but I heard many, many stories of rape.
Richard Wolinsky: At one point, Kate goes to the bathroom and sees these horrendous epithets on the wall, including “sand queen.” Is sand queen an actual term they use?
Helen Benedict: It’s a derogatory term that’s specific to the Iraq war, which comes mainly out of the army. It means an unattractive woman who is the object of a lot of attention from men because women are so scarce. It goes to her head, she gets very arrogant, and she also allows herself to be used by these men who wouldn’t look at her twice at home. As one soldier said, “She’s a mattress.” The language they use about women is so horrific. I decided to use it not only because somebody says that about Kate, but because it summarizes the denigrating attitude that so many military men have towards military women.
Richard Wolinsky: In an essay, you wrote that “military culture is fiercely secretive and self-protective and soldiers who criticize it are treated as traitors.” Whistleblowers tend to internalize the accusation, which means that Kate, the real Kates of the world, or the real Third Eyes or Yvettes, can’t even complain that the soldier next to them is masturbating.
Helen Benedict: No, because they’ll be seen as whiners and weak soldiers. If you’re a soldier, you should be able to handle things yourself. Just as in any really enclosed society, there’s a fierce loyalty that grows up, and you’re seen as a traitor if you report anybody for wrongdoing. That’s considered worse in many cases than actually sexually assaulting someone. Talk about being a traitor! But in the values of the military, it’s commonly thought that women ask for it, invite it, they should handle it, and it’s the blaming of the victim and then internalizing. Self-blame is a common outcome of this.
Richard Wolinsky: Kate goes running in the morning and it’s policy to run with someone. Is that to protect women from Iraqis or to protect them from soldiers? If it’s to protect them from soldiers, then the army knew that rape was occurring.
Helen Benedict: The army is very aware. It is both, but there is a rule that came down very early in the war where women were not allowed to go to the latrines or the showers, which are often far away from where they’re sleeping, without a battle buddy—it’s supposed to be another woman—to protect them from the men on their own side. Which is ironic for many reasons, the obvious being why you need protection from your own comrades. The other is that there very often isn’t another woman to be your battle buddy.
Richard Wolinsky: Women are stuck in this place where anything could happen unless they find a male protector, but they don’t want a male protector because it makes them look weak?
Helen Benedict: Right, and they’re furious because men don’t have this rule. I had many women soldiers say, “Wait a minute, you bring me here as a soldier, you tell me I’m equal, and then I’m not allowed to go to the latrine without having to search for somebody to go with me? What is this? What kind of respect is this?” Another woman told me that her battle buddy, who was a guy because there were no women around, asked her on the way, “What would you do if I raped you?” She said, “I’m carrying a knife.” I heard many stories of women carrying weapons more with the idea of protecting themselves against the men on their own side.
Richard Wolinsky: The sequence where someone reports a rape and is then sent on a suicide mission—how common was that?
Helen Benedict: I heard that sort of story a lot. That’s part of the class action suit. Too many people who’ve reported rape—men and women—have been met with threats of punishment or actual punishment rather than judicial action.
Richard Wolinsky: In that case, it was a woman who turned her back on other women.
The mandates from the government, the permission to torture, the lack of of a clear mission, trying to run the war on the cheap, and treating soldiers badly, all of that erodes one’s moral compass, as soldiers like to say.
Helen Benedict: As with any oppressed group who haven’t had a chance to evolve much yet, there tends to be a great deal of competition and distrust between women because it’s so much harder to win respect as a female trooper than it is as a male. As one of them said to me, “You have to be twice as bad as the boys.”
Richard Wolinsky: Was Camp Bucca a worse-case scenario in 2003, or was it standard operating procedure?
Helen Benedict: I heard these stories from people in all branches, in different circumstances, in different years of the war. Camp Bucca was more primitive at the beginning of the war than some other camps in terms of its physical conditions. But in terms of how men and women treat each other, it was very standard.
Richard Wolinsky: The food that they were eating—these horrible packets of food that just stop you up—do you think that was intentional on the army?
Helen Benedict: They’re constipating on purpose so that soldiers don’t have to go to the bathroom so much when they’re off in theater, as it’s called.
Richard Wolinsky: Dehydration is pretty common as well.
Helen Benedict: The desert heat is unbelievable. Soldiers are passing out from dehydration all the time. I remember one soldier telling me she was afraid to drink very much because she was afraid to go to the latrines at night, so she was passing out all the time. She said she had IV tracks lines on her arms from being re-hydrated so often.
Richard Wolinsky: The abuse of the soldiers by the military and by each other—it makes something like Abu Ghraib a lot more comprehensible.
Helen Benedict: If you can’t treat each other right, then you can see how that would spill over very quickly to not treating detainees right and not treating Iraqis right. Because of the mandates from the government in the Iraq War, the permission to torture, the lack of of a clear mission, trying to run the war on the cheap, and treating soldiers badly—all of that erodes one’s moral compass, as soldiers like to say. It makes it more possible to be abusive towards others.
Women from the Iraq War in particular, but also Afghanistan, are in this unique position of being combat veterans and often sexual assault survivors, so they’ve got this double trauma.
Richard Wolinsky: How common is what happens to Kate, that her disconnect from her family grows and grows so she wants nothing to do with them because they’re totally clueless?
Helen Benedict: A lot of the soldiers in this war came straight out of high school. A lot of them joined up when were so young they needed their parents to sign a waiver—they were seventeen. When they get there and find out they’re not liberating and not helping, they get angry at the adults who encouraged them or allowed them to do this. They’ll come home, and as soldiers have done since the beginning of time, feel that civilians won’t understand what they’ve been through and what they feel. Or they want to protect the people they love from knowing what they did because they don’t want to inflict any trauma. Or they don’t want to be seen as a monster, and some of them feel they’ve been turned into monsters. There are many reasons why they fall into silence, but their anger is huge, both internal and external.
Richard Wolinsky: What about Kate’s reactions when she gets back to the VA hospital in terms of walking out on the group therapy session?
Helen Benedict: Women from the Iraq War in particular, but also Afghanistan, are in this unique position of being combat veterans and often sexual assault survivors, so they’ve got this double trauma. From previous wars, there were very few women who were ground combat veterans. So they either find themselves in therapy groups with combat veterans who are all men, which is very hard for any woman but especially if she’s been sexually assaulted, or they find themselves with women, none of whom saw combat. They feel quite alienated.
Richard Wolinsky: The other side of the story is Naema, who is an Iraqi, a medical student whose family members are taken away by the U.S. military.
Helen Benedict: There’s this idea that we’ve been partly fed, but it’s also just from a lack of information, that Iraqi women were no different from Saudi Arabian women or women in Afghanistan under the Taliban—not allowed to go to school, under the veil, completely oppressed—forgetting that Iraq was a secular country under Saddam Hussein. Women could dress as they wish, especially women living in Baghdad. They were lawyers, doctors, politicians, engineers. 40 percent of the workforce were women, a large percentage of students were women. They had more rights than any Muslim women in the world outside Turkey, all of which has gone backwards since the war.
Richard Wolinsky: The little things floored me: Baghdad as a city of trees, and yet Naema confides that virtually all the trees are now gone.
Helen Benedict: The trees were bombed, mowed down. Iraq had beautiful orange and date groves all over, many of which were plowed just as an act of war, thereby not only ruining the landscape but ruining sources of food and farmer’s livelihoods.
Richard Wolinsky: I read your review of the movie Restrepo, and in that you criticize the film. You say, “do not fall in love with your sources,” and that’s why embedding is dangerous.
Helen Benedict: I called that review, “War, A Love Story: Restrepo.” The danger with embedding is that you put a journalist in with a platoon of soldiers—a journalist is not allowed to carry a weapon so the journalist is dependent on the soldiers to guard and protect his or her life, usually his. On top of it all, soldiers play this game with civilians and journalists which is, “We’re tough guys, we’re the macho soldiers, and you’re just a wimp with a camera. So we’ve got our in-jokes and we’re not sure we’ll let you in.” And then gradually as time goes on, they might start being nice or upset to the journalist and then the journalist feels like, “Oh, I’ve been let into the man’s club.”
It plays into the idea that “I need to be accepted by these macho men so that I can feel like one too.” Before you know it, you are beholden and dependent, even admiring the soldiers that you’re covering. You lose all objectivity. Not to mention, you’re censored when you’re embedded. You’re work is often looked at by a commander. Imagine if you were covering a corrupt corporation and you were sent to live with the CEO. You go to dinner with him, spend weekends with him, get to know his wife, go out, go to the pool, go to the strip club, whatever these people do, and you’re supposed to write an objective story?
Richard Wolinsky: Back in 2002 and 2003 I saw embedded reporters and their embedded reports and it struck me that the Bush administration knew all that and this was deliberate—it seemed like a total con.
Helen Benedict: It was actually invented by the Brits in the Falklands as a way of controlling the press. It’s about making sure that Vietnam doesn’t happen again, where the press went in independently and told it like it really was. Put the images up on the TV screens and fed the protest.
Richard Wolinsky: Why did you choose to write a play called The Lonely Soldier Monologues?
Helen Benedict: That play came straight out of my interviews with the soldiers. It was all in their words, the exact words of the soldiers. It wasn’t a work of fiction; it might be what you call a documentary play. Why did I do it? Because somebody suggested it, and I thought, “these interviews are so dramatic they would work very well on the stage.” Seven women, all different races, ethnic groups,, and ages played the women, the soldiers. We carefully matched up the actors with who the soldiers were. And at one point, the veterans came. They’d never met the actors before. They watched the play and met the actors, and the whole theater was in tears.
Richard Wolinsky: There’s a nonfiction book you wrote a while ago called Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes. How do you think working on a book like that impacted your own work in terms of sex crimes in Iraq?
Helen Benedict: It wasn’t the first book I’d written about sexual assault and violence against women. It was the third book I’d written on this subject. When I first started doing research on soldiers, I didn’t know I was wading back into this subject. I was interested in why women wanted to enlist, what it was like for women to be in ground combat—as they are in Iraq, even though it’s still officially banned. When I started interviewing, I began hearing the stories quickly, immediately, about the abuse. Part of my self-education to write about sex crimes was training as a rape crisis counselor so that I would learn how to interview without retraumatizing people or hurting them, people who had been through trauma. I think it helped me to interview sensitively and helped them to trust me with their stories.
Richard Wolinsky: Was there anything that you wanted to put into the book and there was just no place for it?
Helen Benedict: I had a conversation between Kate and this male soldier who she has a relationship with—I don’t want to give too much away because it’s complicated—Jimmy, who’s a good soul. And it’s a conversation about “the things that I’m doing as a soldier are making me feel evil. Is it being a soldier in war that’s making me do these terrible things? Or was I always like that and it’s the war that’s bringing it out in me?” This is a question that’s interesting for people to wrestle with. But I couldn’t make that conversation happen directly in a way that felt natural—it started to feel like preaching—so I had to take it out.
Richard Wolinsky: That brings up the question of the relationship between activism and journalism. I know journalists are supposed to be “objective,” but what happens when you see a horror? How do you maintain “objectivity” and at the same time be an activist?
Helen Benedict: Journalists aren’t supposed to be activists. We’re supposed to just give the information and let people use it for their activism, which was my main goal with The Lonely Soldier: to give the main material to peace activists and to veterans. But I’m asked to speak a lot on this subject to organizations who see me more as an activist. I think any reporter who does exposés—essentially, what I’m doing is a kind of exposé—falls into looking like an activist or even an advocate because you’re pointing out wrongdoing and that is the role of the journalist. It’s just that the pointing out of the wrongdoing has been fact-checked.
Richard Wolinsky: It seems to me that the mainstream or corporate media has just simply not been doing its job in terms of presenting the material. It seems to be censored, but it’s an internal censor.
Helen Benedict: I think the early coverage of the Iraq War by the mainstream media, in particular the New York Times but also the Post, is one of its darkest periods. I mean, it’s admitted as much. The support for the Bush line, the buying the of the WMD story, the lack of criticism over why we went to war, the lack of questioning. There was self-censorship. The whole decision not to show the coffins of the soldiers coming back, even the way 9/11 was covered. On French television, I saw the people jumping. Nobody in New York saw that on their televisions. There was censorship almost instantly, which is so condescending and patronizing to the public.
Richard Wolinsky: Are things are better now?
Helen Benedict: I do think they are somewhat better. But I always feel that we should be paying attention, more attention, to the lies told by political candidates, and call a lie a lie. There is a fear of doing that because it doesn’t seem objective. But it’s perfectly objective when you can prove something’s a lie.
Richard Wolinsky: You testified twice in front of Congress. What was that like?
Helen Benedict: One of the most nerve-racking things I’ve ever done. Congress has actually been holding hearings on the abuse of soldiers by other soldiers for decades, especially since the first Gulf War. I keep throwing these mandates at the military to do something about it and it keeps being ignored. The first time was still under Bush, the second time was under Obama, and there was a difference in openness. I was glad they held these testimonies and we were able to be as frank as we wished to be. But there is this sense of testifying for the record and not for any actual effect. That you’re shouting into a kind of void. The military is amazingly unresponsive to Congress. It really acts sometimes as if it’s its own kingdom.
Richard Wolinsky: And what about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? How does the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell play into abuse?
Helen Benedict: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was an official tool of persecution. It officially allowed people to bully other people. Rapists used it to silence their victims. Men used it to kick out women who were rivalling them in how well they did their jobs, or were threatening them. More women proportionally were kicked out under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell than men. Once you give people an institution, an official tool of bullying, it spreads to all kinds of bullying. But there’s also been a lot of tolerance. Let us not forget that the majority of troops when surveyed thought that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell should be overturned.
Richard Wolinsky: Do you think you have changed things?
Helen Benedict: Somewhat. Virgin or Vamp inspired some newspapers to draw up guidelines about how to cover sex crimes more sensitively. The Philadelphia Inquirer for one. The Lonely Soldier inspired a class action suit, and I do know that several people in the Defense Department and several Congress people have read it because they were holding my book when I went to testify and said, “We read it.” The Defense Department did implement some of the changes I suggested. Mostly, I think, I have affected a few individuals here and there. I sometimes get very touching emails from people who have been moved or feel, “Oh, this happens to other people. I’m not alone.” You really never know whether you had a lasting effect.
“Bookwaves with Richard Wolinsky” originates in the studios of KPFA-FM Pacifica Radio (www.kpfa.org) in Berkeley, California and can also be heard at other radio stations via Pacifica Audioport syndication.