Helen Benedict’s play about women in war gets first UK outing

Helen Benedict photo

Helen Benedict

“Getting anywhere with writing takes 10% talent and 90% persistence. If you don’t do it, nothing will happen!”

Helen Benedict wrote The Lonely Soldier Monologues entirely in the words of women veterans she interviewed for her books The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq and Sand Queen (a novel). 

When Hannah Roe caught up with Helen, she was informed of a rather interesting coincidence: “[17%] is also the percentage of women in the US military exactly.” Don’t you just love a bit of serendipity? They talked more about the plight of female soldiers and about Helen’s verbatim play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues, which is being presented at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone, 6th – 31st May by PMJ Productions. Tickets are available here

HR: Tell us about The Lonely Soldier Monologues – what motivated you to tell these stories about women in the military?

HB: Well, I’ll go back to 2004, a year after America and the UK invaded Iraq. I was so appalled that I just had to do something about it as a writer but I didn’t know what yet. So I began poking around and one of the first things I did was go to a talk in New York that was being given by veterans freshly back from Iraq; this was a year into the war. There were only about twelve people in the audience – that’s how little interest there was at the time. The veterans were all men talking about their experiences in the war, telling us things we never saw in the headlines. Things about not having enough armour, sometimes not even enough food and drink on some of the bases… But at the back of the room, I saw two young women standing there; I could tell from their postures that they were military. I went up to one of them and I said: “Are you a veteran?” I can quote her reply verbatim, and it’s in the play. She said:  “Oh yeah, I was in Iraq for eleven months. I was a gunner, I was shot at every night but when I talk about it, nobody listens and nobody believes me – and you know why? Because I’m a female”. So I said: “Well I’ll listen: what was it like being a woman in combat?” She said: “Well the first thing you’ve got to understand is that if you’re a girl in the military, the men only let you be one of three things – a bitch, a ho’ or a dyke. You’re a bitch if you won’t sleep with them, you’re a ho’ if you’ve got one boyfriend and you’re a dyke if they don’t like you, so you can’t win.” And the young woman next to her said: “That’s exactly what it was like for me.”

I was, of course, shocked, and meanwhile I had read that more women were being deployed, wounded and killed in the Iraq War alone than in all American wars put together since WWII.Women were sacrificing their lives, limbs and mental health for wars just like men, and if on top of that they were being treated like this, then something was very, very wrong. But I had to find out whether this was just the experiences of two women, so I began interviewing female veterans. That first soldier I spoke to is one of the main characters in the play. I interviewed her and she put me onto her friends. Then I found out about Veterans for Peace, a huge national group of veterans in the States, and they were thrilled to find that someone was at last paying attention to women in the military. They spread the word and over the next three years, I interviewed some forty women who’d served in Iraq and Afghanistan – women from all walks of life; all ages, different ranks, different branches. Then I started to dig around in the databases and I found that the Department of Veterans Affairs had been studying sexual assault in the military and harassment since the Vietnam War. They had all these statistically-sound surveys with shocking figures: 1 in 3 women sexually assaulted, 99% harassed. So that backed up what I was finding anecdotally in my interviews.

Out of those forty interviews, I picked five main characters and wrote my book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, which came out in 2009. I had reams and reams of interviews, more than I could use for the book, and a playwright friend of mine said I should make a play out of it. So I did. But I didn’t know what to do with it because I had no connections in the theatre. Then I fell into conversation with a director at a party and when I told him about my play, he said he wanted to read it. Afterwards, he called me up and said he’d got a theatre where his own play was on in New York. He said he’d ask them to kick his play out and do mine instead, which was very kind of him.That was its first performance in 2010. Since then, it’s been done more than twelve times in different states by various campuses and also professional theatres such as the History Theatre in St Paul, Minneapolis. Originally the play used the soldiers’ real names, as did the book. This was at their request because it was their way of fighting back against the injustices they were talking about. The real veterans came to one of the first performances and sat in the audience, then came up on the stage to talk afterwards – everybody was crying.

Having done the non-fiction book and the verbatim play, I found it still wasn’t enough. That’s when I decided to write the novel, Sand Queen, because I found that when I interviewed these woman, so many of them had been deeply traumatised, not only by being in combat and seeing horrible things but by the treatment they received from their male comrades, that they would sometimes hit a wall and not be able to talk anymore. One of them started having panic attacks that made her unable to breathe because the memories were so horrible. Sometimes the women would deflect certain questions with jokes, or just fall silent. I came to feel that it was in those silences that the true story of how one experiences war inside in one’s heart lies. That’s the field of fiction, what is beyond what a real person can tell you. It’s also a way of delving deep into an experience without exploiting anyone or re-traumatising them by digging too much, which I was very careful of as I was interviewing. I had to pick women who were ready to talk about it. They all had PTSD one way or the other, but the thing about PTSD is that it goes in waves – sometimes you need to talk about it, other times you can’t. Even since the play, a lot of those women have withdrawn from me because I trigger their memories, having been the only person they told their stories to, not even their families or therapists.

Throughout history, war has traditionally been a man’s story. Told by men, for men – but that’s different now. There are so many female soldiers in the world and yet they are almost entirely ignored by male writers. So it takes a woman playwright, a woman novelist and a woman author to pay attention to those women. There are very, very few women who write about war outside of journalism; I know almost all of them in the States, so that’s how few of us there are. Just as the military is a boy’s club, war writing is a boy’s club. Often there are panels about war writing without a single woman speaking, which has been interesting and infuriating because it echoes what the women soldiers told me about how they were treated by their male comrades: constant exclusion and being treated as the ‘other’. The military is like a cross between high school and prison. Most people in the military are adolescents, so the in-crowd/out-crowd thing is very strong and it’s encouraged by training. People close ranks around their buddies and choose the weak ones to exclude. Those will almost always be the women and also the men they label as weak – because they’re gay, intellectual, because they wear glasses, whatever. The exclusion and the abuse is very cruel because soldiers are trained to see their platoon as family.

HR: Sexual violence in conflict is a very prevalent issue at the moment. Do you think enough is being done to eradicate it?

HB: No; there’s never been a war waged on behalf of women, with the purpose of liberating women. There’s never been enough care about that. Women lack rights everywhere in the world in comparison to men; the problem is worldwide and enormous, but it’s still not taken seriously enough by governments for any real effort to take place. Even President Obama – of whom I’m a fan – I heard him listing his accomplishments and there wasn’t a word about women’s rights. It’s not taken as seriously as a political issue as it was even in the ’70s. So we’ve got a huge problem.

HR: Did you approach any men about their perspective when you were conducting your research?

HB: Yes, I interviewed quite a lot of men to get their view of women and their view of the war. They were often the sergeants, fathers and boyfriends of the women, so I was talking to them to corroborate some of the stories. I talked to male commanders and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) about the difference between working with female soldiers and male soldiers. All the ones I talked to said the women were better; more mature, more reliable. There are male characters in the book but not the play. I didn’t want to put any men in the play because that’s what everyone else does!

The majority of men who see my play, read my books or come to my lectures are as shocked and appalled as I am by the injustice and abuse. The army is the most macho institution there is, but the majority of male soldiers are perfectly decent. There are just too many who aren’t. For a long time, I was the only person out there talking about sexual assault and harassment in the military and no-one wanted to believe me. I was verbally attacked and received quite a lot of hate mail; men saying that women only join the military in the first place because they want to sleep around. At the end of the day, they were just proving my point about there being a problem!

The Oscar-nominated documentary film, The Invisible War, came out of my work – I’m in it briefly. The directors of the film read an early article of mine and called me up explaining that they wanted to do a documentary about it. After the film’s release, everything I was saying about the issue became more acceptable and more people acknowledged the reality of the problem.

 HR: Did you approach anyone for an interview who didn’t want to be involved?

HB: Yes, a few women didn’t want to talk to me or didn’t want me to use their names because they were afraid of retaliation, either from the military or the Department of Veterans Affairs. They were afraid they’d be denied benefits or get into trouble in other ways. Then one of the main women in my book didn’t want to be in the play, so I rewrote it and introduced another character from the book. I wanted a contrast; I didn’t want all the women to have had the same experience. Since the women I interviewed originally signed the releases back in 2009, I’ve changed their names to allow them some privacy. They have all moved on with their lives since I wrote the play so it’s kinder to leave them be, and I always request actors and directors not to get in touch with the real women.

Photo: Mary F Calvert

Photo: Mary F Calvert / Zuma Press

HR: What specifically about this story do you think lends itself to the stage?

HB: The women I spoke to were such good storytellers; they were spellbinding. When I started reading over my transcripts, I realised these were dramatic monologues – they’re saying a lot of things that people before them had never dared say about the military or the Iraq War, especially at the time, 2008-09. The sympathy they show for Iraqis and some of their criticisms of the war are still controversial. One of the things that amazed me when I was doing my research was how many American soldiers were against the Iraq War after they’d been there and saw what we were really doing. A lot of soldiers were very young and straight out of high school; they had no history education about the Middle East and they were just told: “Go get the bad guy!” And they believed it. They were told that they were going to go and bring democracy. These women were giving their accounts and bearing witness in history, but they were doing it with a personal touch and with drama and humour. I just realised that all I had to do was a little bit of editing and arranging, and I had a play.

HR: What were some of the other processes involved in creating a script from your research and interviews?

HB: I would sit there in the interviews for up to six hours sometimes, non-stop. I had state-of-the-art recording equipment lent to me by the Oral History Department at Columbia University – very lucky! They transcribed them for me in exchange for archiving the interviews for future historians, which was wonderful – the women loved that. All I had to do then was read over the transcripts, edit them and tighten them up. I arranged the play in three acts exactly the way I’d done the book – before they went to war, at war, and coming home. I wanted to show the arc of what war does to people and how it changes people. I wanted audiences and readers to see who these women were before they were soldiers to understand why they enlisted – people are very puzzled by that and think, “Why would any woman want to be a soldier?” Those three acts are the arc of the narrative.

HR: Coming from a journalistic and literary background, how does playwriting compare to those styles of writing?

HB: It’s wildly different. Plays depend on dialogue alone, and you don’t have the tools of description as you do in books. In the case of a verbatim play like mine, I could edit that dialogue but I had to be very true to it. I couldn’t put words in their mouths; I was very strict about that. And I couldn’t go further inside than whatever the women were saying to me. Those were constraints I wouldn’t have with a novel. It could hardly be more different! Also, the play came from outside because of the kind of play it is, whereas my novels come from inside. I make up the characters in a novel – although they do seem to take on a life of their own in spite of me! If I were a fictional playwright, my answer might be different.

Usually I write all alone in a very isolated world as novelists do, but with the play I sat in on some rehearsals. When I saw how much an actor can do with just the lift of an eyebrow and a shrug of the shoulder, I started cutting the play like mad! I felt liberated; I rather loved it. Finally the director had to tell me to stop! So that’s sort of unusual; I think most playwrights are more protective. It was good because it made me think about my own fiction and that I maybe don’t need to explain or describe so much.

HR: Did you spend a lot of time in the rehearsal room?

HB: For the first performance in New York I did, yes. I didn’t have a lot of say; I had to choose my battles because the director was very territorial. But I did give some advice; there was a funny time where the actors all turned up in their army t-shirts but they all had these lacy bras underneath. That would never ever happen in the military! I had to say: “Ladies – sports bras!”

HR: So what’s next for you? What’s your next project going to be?

The novel I wrote about this issue, Sand Queen, came out in 2011 and I’m now writing another novel which will form part of an Iraq War series. Sand Queen is half about a female American soldier and half about an Iraqi woman, and they meet in an American prison camp. As far as I know, I’m the only American author writing about Iraqi women, so I’m continuing Naema’s story in this next novel.

HR: Finally, do you have any advice for budding writers?

HB: Getting anywhere with writing takes 10% talent and 90% persistence. If you don’t do it, nothing will happen!

Helen Benedict is an award-winning novelist, journalist and playwright specialising in issues of social justice. In 2014, Benedict, who is British and American, was a finalist for the Trust Women Journalist Award from Reuters in the UK. In 2013, she was awarded the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and named one of the 21 leaders for the 21st century by Women’s eNews in the US, in addition to other media and book awards. Her writings inspired an ongoing class action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of women and men who were sexually assaulted in the military and also inspired the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War, in which she appears. Benedict has been featured in the UK by BBC, Reuters and Marie-Claire, and writes occasional book reviews for The Guardian. Website: http://www.helenbenedict.com / Twitter: @helenbenedict

PMJ Productions is presenting The Lonely Soldier Monologues at the Cockpit Theatre after a successful Kickstarter campaign, from May 6th-31st 2015. The show is supporting human rights organisation Liberty’s  campaign Military Justice which has proposals for a fair and independent Military Justice system in the UK.  You can purchase your tickets here. www.lonelysoldier.co.uk

About 17Percent

A campaign to get more plays by women playwrights onto UK stages.
This entry was posted in Close_up, Interview, plays, Plays for today by women, plays to see, Women playwrights, women writers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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