Why I Wrote A War Novel

Why I Wrote A War Novel

By Helen Benedict

August 3, 2011

In 2006, when I discovered that more women were serving and fighting in the Iraq War than in all past American wars put together, I wanted to know why: why they had joined, why they went to war, and what was it like to be a woman in combat.

To find out, I traveled the United States for roughly three years interviewing women veterans. Some I spoke to for an hour or two by phone, others I talked with for many months, visiting their homes, touring their towns, seeing their high schools, and meeting their families. In the end, I interviewed some 40 women from the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force, most of whom had served in Iraq, although a few had served in Afghanistan, Korea, or Vietnam.

These women opened their hearts to me in ways I found extraordinarily courageous and moving. Some were proud of their service, others loved the military but opposed the war, and yet others had turned against both the military and the war but they all wanted to be heard. I wrote my nonfiction book, The Lonely Soldier, based on those interviews, and a nonfiction play of the same name.

Yet, I knew there was more to say.

All these women had endured war, and most had suffered trauma, not only in battle but because so many had been relentlessly sexually harassed or assaulted by their comrades. Sometimes, during our interviews, the women would fall silent, their hands shaking and their eyes filling with tears; at other times they would deflect my questions with humor. Those moments haunted me. I came to believe that, as open as these women were with me, another story lay in those silences and jokes the private, internal story of war hidden deep inside every soldier’s heart; the real story of war.

I wanted to tell that hidden story, but I knew much of it lay beyond what these women were willing or even able to say aloud. Some couldn’t speak because they didn’t have the words, some were too afraid, others too proud, and yet others too ashamed. Military culture is fiercely secretive and self-protective, and soldiers who criticize it are usually treated as traitors. Even whistleblowers tend to internalize that accusation, and eventually retreat into self-loathing, shame, suspicion, and silence.

So I turned to fiction, where I could combine my interviews, research and imagination to fill in those silences and get to the uncensored story of war — to how it really feels to be in a war day in and day out, from the long stretches of boredom to the worst moments of violence, and all that happens in the minutes, hours and months in between.

But soldiers’ experiences are, of course, only one side of what is going on in Iraq. I wanted to tell the other side, too — that of civilian Iraqis — a side that has been missing from American public discourse for more than eight years by now. So I found some Iraqi refugees and talked to them for hours, just as I had the soldiers. They, also, were generous, courageous, and eager to help me. They, also, wanted to be heard. And once I explained that I was writing a novel with an Iraqi character in it, their eyes lightened, their enthusiasm kindled, and they offered all the stories and advice I needed.

Thus I came up with a novel about two women at war: Kate Brady, an American soldier, and Naema Jassim, an Iraqi medical student, who meet at a prison checkpoint and come to affect each other’s lives forever. The stories of Kate and Naema reflect what I found in the silences, tears and jokes of soldiers, and in the lonely eyes of Iraqi refugees; those secret places in the human soul that have always been the territory of novelists.

D.H. Lawrence once said, “war is dreadful. It is the business of the artist to follow it home to the heart of the individual fighters.”

I wrote a war novel because I, too, wanted to follow a war home.