Bullshit Saviors: Helen Benedict and Nadia Hashimi on Depictions of the American Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Novelists Nadia Hashimi and Helen Benedict join hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss the mistakes American writers and culture made in depicting the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the wake of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and President Biden’s decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan, have American fiction and film truly confronted the cost of these wars, especially to civilians overseas? In this episode, Benedict discusses the persistent and problematic glamorization of conflict, and reads from her 2017 novel, Wolf Season, which is about the Iraq War and its aftermath. Then, Hashimi speaks about centering Afghan voices in her fiction and reads from her novel Sparks Like Stars, which begins in 1978 Kabul during the Saur Revolution.
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Check out video excerpts from our interviews at LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website: https://www.fnfpodcast.net/. This podcast is produced by Anne Kniggendorf.
Sparks Like Stars · The Pearl that Broke Its Shell
Wolf Season · Sand Queen · Lonely Soldier · “The Best Contemporary Iraqi Writing about War” (LitHub)
The Storytellers of Empire by Kamila Shamsie (Guernica) · Unbecoming by Anuradha Bhagwati · “A Former Marine Looks Back on Her Life in a Male-Dominated Military” by V.V. Ganeshananthan (New York Times) · Elliot Ackerman and Anuradha Bhagwati on the Role of the Military in American Politics, Fiction/Non/Fiction, season two, episode 21 · Charlie Wilson’s War · Afghan Women are In Charge of Their Own Fate by Cheryl Benard · “The Other Afghan Women” by Anand Gopal (New Yorker) · “What Should a War Movie Do?” by Whitney Terrell (The New Republic) · The Hurt Locker directed by Kathryn Bigelow · Generation Kill by Evan Wright · Karate Kid · Matt Gallagher · Teen Wolf · Casualties of War directed by Brian De Palma · The Messenger · Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi · Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves and Miranda Seymour · Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim · The Taliban indoctrinates kids with jihadist textbooks paid for by the U.S. (Washington Post, 2014) · Sylvester Stallone in First Blood (1982) · Katey Schultz · Jesse Goolsby · Cara Hoffman
Excerpt from a conversation
with Helen Benedict:
Whitney Terrell: You have always been a writer and a novelist, but you weren’t always a writer about America’s post-9/11 wars. Your first novel, published in 1990, was about a British teenager living in Brighton in 1975. Slightly different topic matter. But since America invaded Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, you’ve published two novels on the effects of those wars, and this groundbreaking study about sexual harassment in the military that Sugi just mentioned. What drew you to this topic?
Helen Benedict: Well, initially, the invasion of Iraq, I was just horrified by it, because it was very apparent to me, as it was to many, but not enough, that we were in the wrong country, that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and nothing to do with revenge. And I, like many, was just so horrified by this, and I felt that what can I do about it? And I’m a writer. So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to write about it. So I did some research and quickly found out that more women were serving in that war with the military than in any American war in history, but nobody had recognized this fact at the time. Nobody was writing about women soldiers, except in the most stereotypical way. So that’s what got me started on interviewing women veterans who’d just come back from Iraq, some from Afghanistan, back in 2006-2007 when I began my work. T
hose are the stories that led me to discover the horrific epidemic of sexual assault and harassment that was going on. It was going on even in war, while these women were risking their lives and limbs and mental health in war. But the whole time, I was also very concerned about what was happening to Iraqi civilians, because we Americans tend to forget about that side of things very often and write about ourselves, instead. I didn’t want to be one of those writers. So I went on to find the Iraqi refugees and interview them and, and follow up with my novels Sand Queen and Wolf Season, where I have a major protagonist who’s an Iraqi.
WT: We know each other in part because my novel The Good Lieutenant has a female protagonist. I was always interested in other people who had had that same moment as you like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a lot of women serving in this war, and they’re effectively on the front lines, even though that technical designation didn’t come until much later.’ And Sugi, I saw you on a list of contemporary conflict writers. You didn’t write about this war, but you did write about war, do write about war.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I write primarily about the Sri Lankan civil war and also its effects in diaspora, which I think I’m interested in primarily because of my family, and in looking at other conflicts have seen such interesting parallels.
WT: My main reaction to the war, when we invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq, I had the same reaction as Helen, which was to be terrified of it, because I had a friend who fought in the Gulf War in 1991, who later had problems with PTSD and committed suicide. And so my awareness of how dangerous this was going to be felt very different than the culture at large when it was happening.
VVG: I think I was really very much insulated from the way the country at large talked about and thought about that war. And then I think when we went to Afghanistan, I think I wasn’t really that politicized.
HB: I would say the first thing that awoke me to the problem with war, was being, as you can hear, I’m British, I’m not American. But I did spend some of my teenage years in the States, and I was in Berkeley High School, and I was watching my friends get drafted into Vietnam. I was on the streets demonstrating against that war. I was on the streets demonstrating against the first Gulf War. But it’s not that I was afraid for American soldiers. I couldn’t bear the injustice of it. I still can’t bear, I couldn’t bear, the wrong-headedness of it. And I couldn’t bear the glamorization of war that we do over and over again.
And I will say during 9/11, I wasn’t living in America, I was living in France. There was a huge outpouring of sympathy for all the people who were killed in the towers, and the other attacks, but there was not a huge outpouring of war-mongering. And being in that atmosphere where people did not have the instant reaction of ‘this is war; this is revenge,’ and then watching Bush on television and hearing the soundtrack that CNN would play while he spoke, which is like—this was like the soundtrack of a war movie. The instant reaction of ‘this is war’ absolutely appalled me. And I just needed to push back as much as I could.
Excerpt from a conversation
with Nadia Hashimi:
Whitney Terrell: Afghanistan has a long history of occupation and insurgency. The recent news is, of course, the withdrawal of American troops after being there for 20 years and the takeover of the country by the Taliban. A lot of American writing about and movies have sort of failed to represent what actually occurred there. Your work, on the other hand, resists a lot of these stereotypes I think these movies fall into. Your newest novel, Sparks Like Stars, begins in April 1978, at the start of the Saur Revolution, a coup that set off a decades-long struggle for power.
Since our topic today is bullshit saviors, could you discuss some of the civil conflicts that eventually led to the American invasion and also talk about why you chose to put the beginning of your novel during the Saur Revolution for those of our listeners who might not be familiar with it?
Nadia Hashimi: I chose the Saur Revolution because I felt like that event was a representation of the actual triggers of what led Afghanistan into what would become decades of war. And, you know, I was raised in the United States—I was born and raised here. So I grew up on these American-crafted stories, narratives around the situation in Afghanistan. I was consuming what was available for public consumption. And that was basically you know, Rambo pounding through the countryside on horseback to fight alongside these Mujahideen freedom fighters against the evil communists of Soviet soldiers then retreating, and the celebration of Afghan warriors bringing this red army to its knees, and this being their Vietnam.
And then there was, you know, the post-9/11 news where, all of a sudden, we were seeing in papers and in different images, these burqa-clad women who were being beaten by the Taliban. We were honing in on these events without any context or without any connective tissue. And I could see it in book clubs that I have been lucky enough to participate in around my other stories that there were a lot of gaps in the understanding of Afghanistan’s history.
WT: Can I just say, it’s so incredibly troubling, and such a gigantic example of what a fuckup we have done reporting on this, that I, in all the years that we’ve been in Afghanistan, have never heard the term Saur Revolution. I mean, I reported on Iraq. Never was in Afghanistan, didn’t write about it, but still, come on.
NH: Right. I think we actually skipped over the Saur Revolution, because it doesn’t fit with the narrative, right? The narrative was, ‘Oh, my God, the Russians invaded Afghanistan.’ And then here comes the savior moment of, well, let’s go in and we can save them, right? So that’s why we were funding the freedom fighters and all of that. And so that’s what I wanted to go back to. I wanted to go back to that moment, because of two reasons. One, because I wanted to showcase to people the peaceful, beautiful kind of idyllic Kabul that I inherited from my parents and their stories and their family members. And then also to be able to get at, like, what was the etiology of this war, of this conflict that went on and on and it’s not as simple as the Soviet Union invading, there has to be an acknowledgement of the U.S.’s strategic presence and engagement in Afghanistan.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So, in Sparks Like Stars, we hear your characters talking about how foreigners talk about and to them, which I love hearing that little bit of fictional gossip, as they consider how to position themselves in relation to these people who want so much power there. Historically, American propaganda has portrayed U.S. imperialism in countries such as Afghanistan as acts of justice and salvation, as you’ve already mentioned, and these narratives are bullshit. So what specific mistakes are typical American narratives about Afghanistan making?
NH: So there are a bunch of mistakes. I would say, number one, it might seem superficial, but it’s important to start with, is the Afghan people are called Afghans, not Afghanis. And I thank you all for getting it right. I don’t really blame people. I think that you know, of all the things that are happening, that’s the least egregious. But I’m here to remind you, right. The second is that this Islamic or jihadist movement that had arisen in Afghanistan was spontaneous, and that we had absolutely nothing to do with it.
But you know, it’s pretty well documented in books, if you care to read them, that the CIA had funded programs and enabled the creation of these militia groups. One of the things that I find really fascinating is in the late 1980s, the United States started spending millions I mean, to the tune of like $50 million through USAID, then via the University of Nebraska in Omaha to produce schoolbooks and Dari and Pashto for Afghan children that were called, like “The Alphabet for Jihad Literacy.”
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Anne Kniggendorf. Photo of Helen Benedict by Emma O’Connor.