This bleak novel explores the horrendous impact of the Iraq war on women, both soldiers and civilians.
Based on research conducted for her nonfiction study of women serving in Iraq (The Lonely Soldier, 2009, etc.), Benedict’s fictional portrayal alternates the accounts of Kate, a young specialist stationed at Camp Bucca near Umm Qasr in Iraq, and Naema, a medical student whose family flees to the region after the catastrophic invasion and looting of Bagdad in 2003. Kate is one of three women in a barracks housing 33. Her worst enemies are not Iraqis (derogatorily known as hajjis) but her sergeant, Kormick, and another soldier nicknamed Boner. They sexually assault Kate (the exact nature of the assault is never revealed) on the day she is transferred to another detail, keeping watch in a guard tower overlooking the prison camp at Bucca. Shortly after Naema’s family moves in with her grandmother, American soldiers arrest her father (crippled by torture under Saddam) and preteen brother. Naema goes daily to the camp, where she encounters Kate, who bucks authority to try to get information regarding Naema’s relatives. The kindness of Kate’s comrade Jimmy is so unexpected in this snakepit of a milieu that love between the two, though it exacerbates Kate's dilemma, is inevitable. As the pressures on Kate mount (her tough, seemingly invincible bunkmate is raped by Kormick and Boner, and Kate’s attempts to file charges are laughed off), she revenges herself on the Iraqi detainees, who also single her out for torment because she is a woman. When, mistaking him for one of her prisoner-harassers, she brutalizes Naemas’ father, her spiral of self-destruction accelerates. The enormity of the problems—the woeful inadequacy of soldier’s equipment, the heat, the IEDs, the yawning gap between the mission of “liberation” and the chaos inflicted on Iraqis—that Benedict attempts to pack into such a brief space overwhelms the novel, fragmenting the storytelling into vivid but regrettably sketchy segments.
A flawed but unforgettable testament.