Blowing Up Rusty War Tropes and Bolstering the Female Combatant: A Conversation with Whitney Terrell

By Anne KniggendorfJune 11, 2016

Blowing Up Rusty War Tropes and Bolstering the Female Combatant: A Conversation with Whitney Terrell
WHITNEY TERRELL WAS SKEPTICAL about the first Gulf War. Later, he was “uneasy about the celebratory way a significant portion of the American populace reacted to our decision to invade Iraq again.” Wanting both to understand his unease and join the international conversation about the United States’s actions abroad, he wrote The Good Lieutenant.

Terrell’s first two novels, The Huntsman (2001) and The King of Kings County (2005), focus on race relations in his hometown of Kansas City. His third novel is partially set in wartime Iraq, but is hardly a departure from his oeuvre. As in the first two novels, The Good Lieutenant raises questions about the complexity of motivationally opposed cultures living in tandem.

In order to access and illuminate the individual ethics of leaders involved in combat decisions, he broke from the traditional form of the war novel, writing a female protagonist and ordering the book to run from the end of the tale to the beginning.


ANNE KNIGGENDORF: You knew you wanted to write about the war in Iraq, but you were in Kansas City and had no firsthand experience with war. How did you approach writing The Good Lieutenant?

WHITNEY TERRELL: I was writing The King of Kings County set in 1950s Kansas City during the time we were deciding to invade Iraq. Even though I was very happy to be writing that book, I also felt like I didn’t have a way to comment on these really important things that were happening in the world around me. It has always been the thing I do in fiction, to write about whatever particular social issue is most absorbing to me. So, writing about race in my first two books felt natural, and I had a feeling that this war was going to be a lot more complicated than it seemed like it was going to be. I knew if I wanted to be able to comment on it I was going to have to go to Iraq; I decided to take the plunge and figure out how to embed and write about it.

Tell me about your embeds — who were you with and where were you?

In 2006, I ended up embedding as an engineering writer with Engineering News-Record, which was great because there was a lot of hostility toward mainstream media outlets like the Times and the Post which were viewed as way too liberal. I was at Camp Liberty for 14 days, just west of Baghdad, with the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry with Echo Company. When I came back I wrote a long piece for the Washington Post. In 2010, I went for Slate. That time I was in Balad, which is a big operating base in central Iraq. I was there for about two weeks again, that time with the 36th Engineer Brigade.

You wrote the events of the book so that they’re going backward. It opens with the detonation of the IED that blows apart the vehicle Dixon Pulowski is riding in and ends with the beginning of Emma Fowler and Pulowski’s romance. How did that structural choice advance your plot or support your themes? 

In a normal war narrative, it’s training, deployment, combat, then denouement. The combat is the climax. Therefore, by the structure it’s defined as the most important thing that happens. If you reverse that structure and put combat at the beginning, then the climax of the book is before they ever deploy and it means that the most important things that happen between people are the things that happen in their personal relationships outside of combat. The structure is consonant with the thematic ideas behind the book.

How did you decide to create a female protagonist?

I already knew I wanted to write about a female character — it seems like that character, Emma Fowler, had been there from the very first time I imagined this book. I can’t say it was a conscious decision. I thought that writing from her perspective might be a way of escaping certain repeating male myths about war — or at least not having to spend time discrediting them — such as: Combat is the thing that will prove your character. Such as: There’s a special kind of brotherhood in war that’s accessible nowhere else, and that for all the horrible things that might happen to you while you’re in combat you still form a special bond with your soldiers that can be repeated nowhere else. I think there are soldiers who will tell you that this is true, but that whole idea looks a lot different if you’re a woman. I just don’t believe that war is good for friendship; that doesn’t make sense to me.

Did you meet many women serving in Iraq? Anyone who was a model for Emma?

I met Jennifer McDonough, who was a captain at the time. She wasn’t a model as a person, but she offered insights. She said it’s extremely difficult to be a woman who’s attached to an infantry battalion. It’s very isolating. And that’s the situation that Emma’s in in the book. I had an interview with her about a mission she went on trying to rescue a bunch of very heavy vehicles called buffalo from a muddy field. Jen ran a recovery unit and she used M88s, which are also called Hercules, to go out and retrieve wrecked vehicles. After I heard that story I thought, okay, that’s what my character’s going to do.

Pulowski, like Emma, is a lieutenant but he has no platoon. The narrative needs him to have the freedom to go where she goes — any other reason he’s not portrayed as a leader? 

I ran into this remarkable guy who was part of the Asymmetric Warfare Program. He was retired and brought back by the Department of Defense and was making up devices to try to combat IEDs. I realized there was this huge Defense Department program funding people to try to come up with some way to deal with IEDs — think-outside-the-box kind of stuff. So I wanted Pulowski to be participating in that program in some way.

Women in combat leadership roles has been a hot news topic recently — do you see Emma as a woman in combat? 

To me, anyone who was running convoys or engaging in recovery missions outside the wire in Iraq at that time was in combat. Period. The most dangerous things to deal with were IEDS. Anyone on the roads was dealing with those.

The details about Emma’s trials feel true down to the tiniest details — for instance, during the rescue scene when she and Beale have to move a slab off of Weazer her hair catches on something and she has to figure out how to bear it and stay focused — something a male soldier wouldn’t be dealing with. How did you put yourself in Emma’s shoes enough to write a woman’s experience of these situations?

I interviewed a lot of women in the Army. Stateside there was Angela Fitle and Stacy Moore who are in the trailer for the book. But, after a while if you can’t imagine yourself inside the character and be aware of how she’s feeling based on her history, you’re screwed. You can’t rely on someone else, you have to just feel your way through the scenes.

Emma is depicted as masculine or maybe on the androgynous side —

I want to know what those “masculine” characteristics are — to me they’re her characteristics.

You describe her as broad-shouldered with muscular thighs. She’s someone who shuns traditionally female roles like being a caregiver. And there’s the Thanksgiving scene: she’s working the grill and her face is smeared with charcoal; she’s in cut-offs and flip-flops and making beer-can chicken; she’s very uncomfortable with the women in her family. So, maybe that’s not necessarily masculine, but it’s not a traditional way to portray a woman preparing for Thanksgiving with her aunts.

I would push back against the idea of what traditionally feminine is. Maybe I just think that most humans have some of both characteristics most of the time.

You’ve also given the male characters typically female attributes: “feminine” hands; champagne-flute wrists; effeminate faces; being too polite, which is often a female fault. Emma fantasizes about Pulowski in women’s clothes. Was feminizing the men a strategy or would you say you were pushing against what’s traditionally masculine? 

It’s not a strategy but a deliberate dislike of the clichéd ways we think of men and women in literature and television and film. One of the things I tell my students is that when they’re envisioning a scene or piece of action or trying to describe someone, the first five things you’re going to think of come from media. You’ve got to get rid of all those things and just try to think about the person that you’re talking about and envision them.

I had begun to wonder if you were playing with role reversals.

I don’t believe in role reversals! I would like it to be an upending of the constant struggle against the sort of masculine/feminine stereotypes that saddle writing all the time; it’s a horrible thing. Just to say that someone has a champagne-flute wrist doesn’t feel to me feminine, it feels descriptive. That image came to me because I want to suggest that at that moment Faisal’s [a US-hired Iraqi interpreter] vulnerable, he’s breakable, he’s not some tough brute guy. I agree with what you’re asking and appreciate it — but to say champagne-flute wrist is a woman — that’s cultural encoding to me.

The scene where Fowler is imagining Pulowski in female clothes, it’s a playful form of escape for her at that moment. It’s also a way of saying fuck you to Mel Gibson who’s playing Hal Moore in We Were Soldiers. There’s no place for her in a movie like that. And that movie is full of all the encoded stereotypes about what makes a man and what makes a woman. Those things are so heavy-handed in that movie that they feel like part of the Republican Party platform about how men and women are supposed to be. That movie pisses me off and pisses Emma off, too. All the women have to be wearing little cardigans and they’re working on flower arrangements and praying with the kids. The men are strong and silent and in the background — no, no, the women are in the background in all shots in which the men appear. I feel like it’s an attempt to revise away the ’60s. Movies like We Were Soldiers want to reinvent the old-fashioned verities about men and women. In that sense they’re profoundly political movies. It’s also one of the reasons that it’s really important for women to be characters in war fiction now. Not because they’re participants in these conflicts, but because their presence destroys that simple stereotype that war movies are sometimes used to advance. Hundreds of thousands of women fought in Iraq and they don’t fit in these movies. And that’s why it’s important to support women who are writing from that point of view now. Women who are writing about war now should be aided as much as possible.

What’s happening with the scene in which Emma is presented as a caregiver — the one when she helps Crawford find his glasses and ends up looking at her sleeping soldiers. You acknowledge through her that her thoughts are turning sentimental though you seem to have taken great care to keep it from going too far in that direction — why is this scene important?

When she’s in training she’s not interested in caregiving. She’s looking at the army as an escape from that. She thinks rules are going to be clear and there’s not going to be any personal stuff. What she eventually understands is that that is not the best way to be the leader of a platoon. So, in that particular scene she’s being nice to Crawford — by then she’s learned how to do that and that it can be effective. Her motives are sort of complicated in that scene. She’s using part of her learned arsenal of being a leader. It was important to try to imagine that scene in comparison to what she’d just done with the Iraqi who was in the process of being tortured. One of the things I think is important to her is protecting the relative innocence of the soldiers who are beneath her.

How well did you know her before you decided to give her the nickname “Family Values”? And is that a good or bad thing for her to be called?

That was not originally part of the book. The first time around, when I wrote the book forward, I didn’t write scenes of them training. It’s not a completely negative nickname. It feels contradictory that soldiers use it to emphasize her desire to live by the rules. But, they’re also teasing her for being different and not being a family values type and not wanting to care for them. The rules are her way of keeping them distant.

By the end of the novel is Fowler just as low as Masterson, that meathead officer who gives her a lot of bad advice about leading?

I think Fowler’s become compromised. She violated a lot of things she believed in — it’s one of the sad things about her. Whether she’s on his level, that’s something for the reader to decide. I’ve had readers say different things to me about the end of the book. It should be an ending that they care about and make moral judgments about and that should be complicated enough that people will make different judgments about it.

The relationship between the Iraqis and the Americans is precarious — how did you determine the best way to portray it?

I spent years thinking about how to balance it, how to compress it, how to get across the possibility of betrayal. The negative and the positive parts of that relationship. I was helped by this guy Khaldoun Ahmad who teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He’d lived in the exact area where I was embedded in 2006. I met him randomly while I was jogging up my street in Kansas City. It was this amazing coincidence, though coincidences happen when you’re looking for them. He became an incredibly crucial consultant on all things Iraqi.

What books did you look to while you wrote?

Gravity’s Rainbow was an important book for me. Catch-22. Three Soldiers. Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. James Jones’s The Thin Red Line is my favorite and most successful and amazing book about war I’ve ever read — I always went back to that book.

Just curious, why did you draw a U in the book to represent the well the soldiers are searching for in Ayad’s field? I understand that to be a female symbol and wondered if you meant it that way. 

I drew it because Ayad is deaf so he needs a drawing. I will say this to you: my unawareness of symbols doesn’t mean anything. I believe if you’re really working hard on a book you should be encoding all kinds of things that you’re conscious and unconscious of.

What’s at the heart of the book?

It’s the story of a fundamentally good person, a person who morally the reader would accept and identify with, who makes a series of decisions that the reader would think: oh, I might decide that way. They’re good decisions, but because of the complications and the political mistakes of the war in Iraq, good decisions are the worst things that you can make. We went to war for the wrong reasons. Any time you’re fighting and risking your life, you want to know that there’s a core reason that is justified and real why you’re there.

I’ve seen World War I and World War II distinguished from each other by referring to World War II as the good war because Americans understood that “core reason.” Does that distinction have any bearing on the way you’ve titled the novel? Are you distinguishing Emma from Pulowski who’s the only other lieutenant?

Pulowski’s the bad lieutenant? The half-ass lieutenant? [Laughs.] Calling her the “good” lieutenant is referencing that idea. I want the reader to understand how a war like that can make someone who you would think was good and who you’d believe in as a fundamentally morally decent person, do things that the reader would say to themselves: oh, I would never do that. The project of the book is to make readers understand that: You know what? I very well might have done what Emma did, and then consider the moral implications.


Anne Kniggendorf is a regular contributor to The Kansas City Star. She’s a navy veteran and has just completed a draft of a memoir about her experience in basic training.

LARB Contributor

Anne Kniggendorf is a regular contributor to The Kansas City Star. She’s a navy veteran and has just completed a draft of a memoir about her experience in basic training. Her work has also appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and Bluestem.


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