“Sometimes, even now, I wake up before dawn and forget I am not a slut,” Kayla Williams writes, in the prologue to her memoir Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army. In the first chapter, “Queen for a Year,” she elaborates: “RIGHT INTO IT: Sex is key to any woman soldier’s experiences in the American military…I mean sex while in Iraq. At war. While deployed.”
I read Williams’s memoir over a decade ago– it was published in 2005, and so precedes Brooke King’s War Flower: My Life After Iraq (Potomac Books, 2019) by fourteen years. The two authors, both Army veterans, share some very similar struggles, womanhood within a macho military culture chief among them.
I’ll get a few of the other, more-obvious similarities out of the way first: The two authors–as have many from the military sphere– cleverly manipulate Army slang for all its potential irony, harshness, and cutting humor (“Queen for a Year” refers to the boost-on-a-hotness-scale a female servicemember can reasonably expect during a male-heavy deployment, while “War flower” is, as King describes, “a term coined during Operation Iraqi Freedom…to describe a female soldier [usually enlisted] who has miraculously survived a mission and/or deployment without sustaining physical injuries”).
There are similarities in the womens’ retelling of their early years, too. Both describe dysfunctional (though often colorful and sometimes affectionately-recounted) family backgrounds featuring hippie fathers, and an early childhood need for toughness, especially in the face of physical pain. Williams recalls learning her first word–“Hot!”– after touching a stove, a toddlerhood language-breakthrough, rather than tears, being her mode of dealing with the situation–perhaps fitting for a future linguist. King cites a pain tolerance so high that she leaves a piece of shrapnel in her leg after a mortar attack and is impervious to the effects of multiple epidurals during a harrowing childbirth experience.
These traits all make for engaging reading, the sort of necessary, riveting bravado any military memoir is going to offer its armchair readership (though these memoirs are certainly far more than that, multifaceted and nuanced in their plumbing of the war experience). But it’s the handoff Williams’ book makes to King’s that interests me most.
For all the similarities in what they contain, it’s an omission from Rifle that might provide the biggest opening for a memoir like War Flower. I heard Kayla Williams speak publicly on an AWP panel in Los Angeles in 2016 (“Iraq Veteran-Writers Ten Years Later: Words After Words After War,” moderated by Peter Molin and also featuring Colby Buzzell, Maurice Decaul and Ron Capps), in which she mentioned that there was one thing she sincerely regrets having left out of her first book: the fact that she, as did many other soldiers, had sex while deployed in Iraq. It was the exclusion of this fact, rather than the fact itself, about which she seemed conscience-stricken. To paraphrase: Williams said she did not write about it in detail at the time out of the fear of reinforcing a negative stereotype of women in the armed forces, who are damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t. Williams’ book was one of only a very few female-soldier narratives at the time, and so she feared her words might have a disproportionate influence.
What I took from Williams’ regret was that back in the early 2000s, she intended this omission to protect her sisters-in-arms, but that later, in 2016, she was concerned it had been more self-protective. I would argue, however, that Love My Rifle, with its accessible, often casual explanation of military gender-relations and culture, and its no-nonsense straight-talk about sex (“they stared at our tits all the time“; “he was an asshole and a lot of women like assholes,” “the PX in Iraq sells condoms. The general attitude is: ‘Don’t get caught'”), paves the way for the rawer, pain-strafed narrative of War Flower.
Now, to back up just a tiny bit and give Williams the credit she’s not giving herself: to my mind, she does “write about it,” on page 21:”The guys were there for the taking too. And we took. I took.” The meaning of “I took” is pretty clear, and at the time of reading, I honestly did not know how much braver, literarily, anyone could have expected Williams to be. Love My Rifle is an exceptionally brave memoir. Then I read War Flower, and realized: Oh. There is also this kind of brave.
Brooke King opens her memoir with one of the gutsiest moves I’ve encountered in a long time: by putting herself on trial. In the opening scene, she has been court-martialed for a relationship with a married officer, James, which took place on their deployment to Iraq and which has resulted in King’s pregnancy with twin boys. She does not mince words, repeating the accusatory cadence of the charges for the reader the way they were chanted at her, in language that somehow toes the line between pearl-clutching Puritanism and rote, exhausted judgment. It’s an interesting choice for many reasons, not least of which is that it’s openly challenging the reader. It’s taking a gamble. King’s prologue stands right up in your face and wants to know where you stand, is this going to offend you and end up back on the shelf, huh, or can you hack it? (Now, to be perfectly honest, as a military spouse, reading about deployed officers’ baby-making trysts is not generally my first choice of relaxing reading material, but anyway, it wasn’t meant to be relaxing and also, I felt sympathy for King in this opening scene.) This was honesty. I knew I was reading a book that was going to be honest.
From the scene of the trial, King takes us back in time to her initial arrival in Iraq. These sections of the book are the more expected, first-person-in-wartime parts of the story. King makes another interesting choice, however, which is that the scenes in Iraq give us what feels like an unadulterated version of her 20-year-old self. Every other word is “fuck” and her main preoccupations are homesickness, an interest in her own capacity for violence that turns fairly quickly to revulsion, and in-scene details of some of the more traumatic parts of the deployment. “We’ve done enough for these fucking A-rabs,” King tearfully tells her sergeant, Sgt. Lippert (a fascinating “character” and one of the best-wrought in the memoir), in an early scene; this does not sound like the King who comes later, but thank God we don’t all sound like our 20-year-old selves. Again: it feels honest. King describes the horror of recovery missions, gathering severed body parts and putting them into separate bags. It’s truly painful to read, each of her descriptors hitting home. She tells the way the bags crinkle as their contents settle, and the surprising reverence with which kind-of-an-asshole Lippert handles them, gathering up a fallen bag when King cannot, cradling the dead soldier’s head.
The story of King’s personal war is a necessary one for understanding the sections that come after. She expresses the frustration, sorrow, and sense of loss that many other soldier memoirs have. “We didn’t know the names of the streets or which roads led to nowhere,” she writes, of Iraq. “When shit hit the fan, sometimes we didn’t know which direction to fire the bullets.” They are there until the military lets them leave, or they die, a situation that gives King a sense of kinship with veterans of previous wars but especially Vietnam.
Where King’s memoir diverges from more common first-person-shooter accounts is in its creative-nonfiction forays into the minds of other people, other casualties of war. (This is not to say that traditional memoirs by American service members haven’t often shown great concern and sympathy for the victims of personal or political violence–they have.) In brief but frequent chapters that read like standalone flash-fictions, King allows herself to inhabit the minds of a dozen other people: an Afghan girl she often saw in the marketplace but never spoke to. A plural legion of Vietnam veterans. A pair of dog tags, starting out as inanimate objects but gradually endowed with judgment, sympathy, and memory. Most heartbreakingly, a three-year-old boy tortured and starved by jihadists. “Nassir’s dazed eyes from the dimly lit room do not reveal to him that his captors, the men who run this place, are walking in to strip him of his clothes.”
These sections are the “cooked” to the memoir’s “raw,” to utilize an anthropological concept Peter Molin has riffed on and which has now gained some traction of its own. I like both sections, but I like the “cooked” ones best. They are often quite lyrical and beautiful, precise and sparkling with heartsick clarity. They stand out from the first-person war sections to remind the reader, as King must have reminded herself, that she is far from the only victim or casualty of this war. It’s not a comforting knowledge, and it is not supposed to be.
Adding occasional comic relief (or at least the relief of affection) to the narrative are scenes with King’s loving, “fucked-up” family, who are concerned about her upon her return from Iraq and trying their best to jostle her from her depression. Her father and grandparents are more clearly wrought than any of the male love interests in the memoir, and despite the hardship of King’s childhood, these sections are enjoyable to read. They’re also key in showing us who King is: a responsible older sister who, at age ten, cooked dinner for her kid brother and talked her dad out of a suicide attempt; who unwittingly dropped acid in marshmallow form at age nine at a Grateful Dead concert; who shields her Italian nana from the truths of war and pours her grandpa a Johnnie Walker because they both know what it’s like to need some time tucked inside themselves.
Another group of sympathetic folks enter King’s life when she decides to work toward a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. Her fellow writers encourage her to ditch thinly-veiled fiction to work on memoir.
I had found out about my pain, unleashed it on the page, and realized for the first time in my life that it was okay to hurt while writing, that the best part of a story is when the writing leans into the pain on the page instead of leaning away….I was molting my war skin and becoming something entirely different.
It’s this sense of becoming something different that elevates War Flower and allows for the feeling that two authors and a host of ghosts might have written the book: Iraq-war King, post-Iraq King, and the small cohort of souls who drop in, briefly, to explain themselves. The kaleidescopic effect is powerful and points to another Iraq war-writer progenitor, Brian Turner. Whether or not he’s the friend King mentions in “IED,” describing an experience that sounds a lot like the basis for Turner’s “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center” (although the franchise [Home Depot here] and timeline [2010 or before] probably do not add up), the influence of Turner with all his Whitmanesque multitudes seems to inhabit the latter pages of War Flower. King’s epilogue, “Present Arms,” rings with homage to the closing pages of Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country, though the scenarios are different: rather than a Sgt. Turner who, “because he is dead…will remain at his post,” haunting his own life from above (“two bright forms sleeping side-by-side in the bedroom”), “zooming in sometimes, switching camera angles and lenses, collecting data, checking his gauges,” King imagines a ceremony in which her company gathers to say good-bye, calling her name before the small altar of her boots, rifle, dog tags, helmet, and photo.
The air will be still as the silence of the formation stands rigid. Some will hold back tears. Others will bend their knees slightly to keep them from buckling under the weight of their own body…”Taps” will play long and slow.
In King’s case, having shed her war skin, the ceremony is to honor the fact that she’s gotten away.
A first-generation of war writers has shown that this is possible: multiple stories within a war, multiple lives within a person. Bravery, both in person and on the page, from dozens of writers like Kayla Williams and Brian Turner, has helped spur books like War Flower, which in turn has pushed the envelope into further reaches of creativity and imagination, further spins on the old war story. I am interested to see what the compassion and honesty of War Flower make possible, both for King in her future work, and for other young writers.
Love, regret, sex, death, mistakes, forgiveness–it’s real in the military and everywhere, and nothing is easy, but people contain a million things, and the beauty of writing is that the author decides what to keep, and what to let get away.
King, Brooke. Warflower: My Life After Iraq. Potomac Books, 2019.
Turner, Brian. Phantom Noise. Alice James Books, 2010.
Williams, Kayla. Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army. W.W. Norton & Co., 2005.
Look for an interview with Brooke King and an excerpt of War Flower in the upcoming April 2019 Wrath-Bearing Tree.