It’s not enough to say that Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls brilliantly pins down the day-to-day malaise of desert war–era military life: the boredom, the gnaw of fear, the uncertainty about what exactly the mission was.
Or that the book, which tracks 10 years (and two rounds of deployments) in the lives of three Indiana National Guardswomen, lays bare the perils and promise of the military’s shift to a mixed-gender force — there are tales here of harassment, of course, and the women are trained never to walk on their own bases after dark by themselves, but there are also triumphs of comradeship. Relish the moment, in Iraq, when single mom Desma interrupts some young men’s mess-hall bickering by flopping a dildo onto the table and declaring, “Mine’s bigger than all of yours, so shut the fuck up!”
Or even that Soldier Girls, rich in the private details of war, love, and family, is so often urgently moving, a potent examination of friendship and trauma, of the bonds between these three women who might not have related much to each other in civilian life — one’s a young mom, one’s a fiftyish National Guard lifer, one’s a college-bound Nader voter.
The power of Thorpe’s exhaustive, novelistic Soldier Girls is bigger than all of that. This is a heartbreaking portrait of an America whose wars are increasingly fought by moms and grandmothers — the title comes from the pink T-shirts offered by Guard recruiters.
Thorpe’s military reportage is compelling, scary, often hilarious. The women’s first deployment, to Afghanistan in 2004, percolates with surprising romances, spirited sex comedy, and touching camaraderie. Desma orders pink flamingos to decorate the tent she shares with Michelle, the liberal beauty who, during one stretch of training, was forbidden to wear T-shirts, as her body proved too distracting to the men around her. Their base, Camp Phoenix, was officially dry, but Michelle and Desma manage to kill time with booze and pot brownies, while Debbie, the gung-ho Guard lifer, set up an ersatz beauty salon in their tent. Debbie knew which female soldiers were getting lucky based on who asked her for a Brazilian. All three prove adept at their jobs and quickly come to relish the admiration and friendship of their predominantly male counterparts.
For all those highs, the women’s year in Afghanistan was also dreary and confounding. Michelle wondered at her curious job: repairing thousands of AK-47s discovered around the country, often leftovers from the Soviet era. These were then given back to the Afghans, leaving Michelle to ponder in later years where they eventually wound up — and who they might have killed.
A second deployment, to Iraq in 2008, proves much more harrowing. These were the dark days of that insurgency, which seemed forever to be in its last throes. The military banned women from combat, but Desma and Debbie both wind up assigned to truck-driving duties, one of the most dangerous jobs in the war. Debbie, a new grandmother, manages to swap for a new detail; Desma, a mother of three, spends the better part of a year “riding ass” in convoys, scanning every foot of road for suspicious trash or rock-piles or animal corpses — anything that could hide an IED. These late chapters will give you the sweats.
Thorpe writes just as affectingly of life back home, both before and after the deployments. (Occasionally, her prose thuds, especially as she hustles from one life to the next, but that doesn’t harm Soldier Girls — it’s the intimate specifics that matter.) The opening chapters are a tour de force of the realities facing downwardly mobile Midwesterners. Hippie alt-girl Michelle bops from broken homes with meth-addicted relatives to college courses she isn’t yet prepared for. She’s smart, and she knows she could be somebody, but rural Indiana offered no support for her. The economic calculus behind her decision to join the Guard makes a brutal sense — two weeks a year, one weekend a month, in exchange for college tuition — especially since she joined up in June 2001. Thorpe’s sensitive thoroughness makes these passages brisk, wrenching reading: She understands economic hardship, young people’s mood swings, and the way that the Guard offered Michelle the chance to thrive and rebel at the same time. Michelle is a likable, complicated figure, one who urges her bunkmates to vote against Bush, but also one who comes to respect their sacrifices — and who struggles, in later life, to share with non-vets the pride she feels in her service, even as she’s outraged by so many individual aspects of the wars and her deployments.
Even more arresting are the passages devoted to the women’s return to civilian life. All three suffer small collapses inside grocery stores. None know how to talk to people back home about it. One develops full-blown PTSD. Desma, driving in Indiana, spies a garbage bag on the road and skids out to investigate it. A cop spots this and pulls alongside her. “I’m so sorry!” she says. “I didn’t mean to freak out, but you don’t understand!”
He’s sympathetic, but he — like too many of us — couldn’t possibly understand. Thorpe’s wise, sad, beautiful book is a great place to start.