Helen Benedict is a professor of journalism at Columbia University with expertise in international affairs and social issues. She writes frequently about justice, women, soldiers, and war, and is the author of seven novels, including Sand Queen, a Publishers Weekly “Best Contemporary War Novel.” Recipient of both the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, she is also the author of five works of nonfiction and the play The Lonely Soldier Monologues: Women at War in Iraq. Her latest book, Wolf Season, is a novel about the wounds inflicted on soldiers, refugees, and their families.

Because of the importance of her work on veterans, women, and war, Stay Thirsty Magazine invited Helen Benedict to participate in our One Hundred Words project and write one hundred words about topics we suggested.

STAY THIRSTY: War brought home.

HELEN BENEDICT: “The war doesn’t end when you get home,” a veteran said to me once, her eyes filling with tears. She was talking about a soldier friend who had fallen into such depression on her return from Iraq, and had been so cut off from others, that she had taken her own life. Veterans from today’s wars are 22 times more likely to kill themselves than civilians, and women who were sexually assaulted in the military are six times more likely to do so than other veterans. The military may turn civilians into fighters; it cannot turn fighters back into civilians.

Helen Benedict

STAY THIRSTY: Resilience and honesty.

HELEN BENEDICT: I interviewed quite a few Iraqi refugees to research Wolf Season, every one of whom had lost someone they loved to the war. I was deeply moved by their resilience and the honesty with which they talked to me. One woman had seen both her brother and teenage son killed in our war. Another had lost his brother-in-law. Yet another had seen her younger brother killed. They suffered, but they weren’t angry at ordinary Americans. “We lived under Saddam,” one said. “We know the people aren’t the same as their leaders. We know not all Americans were for this war.”


HELEN BENEDICT: Perhaps the main fallout of war is loss. We don’t often think of war that way, but it makes both the invader and the invaded lose almost all that matters to a human being. The invaders lose their moral compasses, their ability to connect with those they love, and sometimes their limbs, health, and lives. The invaded lose limbs and lives, too, along with their families, homes, and often, their country. These losses alone point to the cruelty of war. And now, with the biggest refugee crisis the world has ever seen underway, we have lost the world’s stability, too.


HELEN BENEDICT: Because my character Rin keeps wolves, I had to learn all I could about what that entails. So, I made my way to a wolf preserve in northwest New York called Wolf Mountain, and spent many hours watching wolves. Because it was a weekday, nobody was there but the staff and me, so I was able to stand by the fence and just stare as they played, slept, ate, and stared back at me. I read a lot about wolves, too, of course, but nothing taught me as much as simply watching them in their magnificence, majesty, and unconquerable wildness.

STAY THIRSTY: Frankness and innocence.

HELEN BENEDICT: Say the words “frankness” and “innocence,” and of course one thinks of children. The children in Wolf Season, Juney, Tariq, and Flanner, are essential to my novel because, like children everywhere, they absorb the troubles of the adults around them, and then reflect them back with unflinching honesty. Each child in Wolf Season is profoundly affected by war, and each is wounded in his or her particular manner. But children are ebullient, and have a way of resisting darkness and reclaiming light. They are also naturally tender, so can embody both the tragedy of war and the hope of recovery.

STAY THIRSTY: Private massacres.

HELEN BENEDICT: Because war teaches such harsh lessons—murder, senselessness, death, cruelty, despair, destruction—no one emerges unscathed. Sometimes the wounds are visible, but more often they are only apparent in the privacy of homes and families. The veteran who attacks his wife, the survivor who cannot trust, the refugee who cannot hear rain without remembering bombs and terror, the former soldier who fails to take his wife’s illness seriously until it is too late, the child of the missing soldier who vents his rage and hurt out on a friend—these are the sorts of tragedies I would call private massacres.

STAY THIRSTY: Women veterans.

HELEN BENEDICT: More American women served in Iraq than in any war since World War Two, and proved themselves excellent service members. But because they made up only one tenth of the troops, many were painfully isolated. This resulted not only in loneliness for many, but vulnerability to sexual harassment and rape from their comrades. Nearly a third of military women reported being raped by fellow servicemen, and 90 percent say they were harassed. If sexual persecution were considered a disease, these rates would be labeled an epidemic. The military has been slow and, so far, alarmingly ineffective at redressing the problem.

STAY THIRSTY: War and conscience.

HELEN BENEDICT: I began writing about the Iraq War because I was so stricken by the cruelty of invading a country that had never done us any harm. The biggest surprise was finding that so many veterans of that war agreed with me. I had expected fervid patriotism and defensiveness. Instead, I found young people willing to ask themselves if they had done wrong in fighting this war, and how they were ever going to feel like good people again. That question takes courage to ask. Not the courage one uses to fight, but the courage one needs to admit to wrongdoing.

(Helen Benedict photo credit: Emma O’Connor)

Helen Benedict 

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.