Nobody wants a war book until the war is over.
We have news for that. Skimming the CNN tickers already gives us more than we can stomach without introducing the dirt-level boredom and disgust of lives lived and lost under the heavy load of national security concerns. But just as people with stories to tell will find ways to tell them, packagers of other people's stories will find novel ways to sell them.
Powder, an anthology of women's war stories edited by Lisa Bowden and Shannon Cain (Kore Press, 2008), goes beyond novelty to polish a fresh facet of the world's real oldest profession: combat. Bridging across the current conflicts to earlier perspectives from Vietnam and peacekeeping operations around the world, this book succeeds in presenting deeper insights than those groped for in true-life memoirs rushed to press.
Full disclosure obligates me to mention that I know and have worked with one of the writers in Powder, cover girl Sharon D. Allen, and that she is a big, loud, sexy sergeant who is hell-funny when she's not breaking your heart — and sometimes when she is. I would readily tell cheap lies about the rest of the writers just to get you to read Allen's work, but it's not necessary here.
Powder is important on the merits.
For straightforward literary value, K.G. Schneider's introduction to Air Force basic training, "Falling In," serves as both first-rate primer for the military virgin and a nostalgic tug for prior service members. Old soldiers will smile, recognizing in her hard-lacquered innocence their own clumsy first steps into the parallel universe of martial subculture. Schneider's clear love of words finally breaks through her initial distaste of the shorthand drawl of military patois, and we rejoice with her as she becomes not merely in, but of, her adopted global family.
Lieutenant Colonel Victoria A. Hudson's "Convoy Day" essay conveys outside-the-wire action not with a tumbling rush of exciting adjectives but by detailing the thick layer of heat, ennui, nerves, and brute effort surrounding those few dreaded, shimmering moments of absolute awareness that imbue imminent firefights with the kind of beauty impossible to acknowledge in polite society.
Deeper in the book, Hudson's poem "Bosnia 1996" lays out for civilians the impossibility of answering the second-most loathed question asked of soldiers, ending with this verse:
How do I convey
My obscene witness to their pain?
And you ask
What was it like?
Terry Hurley clearly knows what it was like, both to experience and to reconcile later, juxtaposed over the peaceful actualities of home and sons distancing her from war's miasma. In "The Dead Iraqi Album," Hurley maintains a book of grim battle photos, examines it repeatedly, cannot give it up even at her young son's suggestion to donate it to a war museum and stop remembering "the bad things." Away from the book, though, and in her own mind, Hurley remembers her soldiers. "I remember meeting the man who would become my husband. I remember the cheering crowds as I led my troops into Kuwait."
Every book has its weaknesses. Powder is blemished by the cant of its creators, their nakedly political agenda bleeding through every syllable of their preface and the foreword by Helen Benedict, a Columbia University journalism professor. The self-righteous near-understanding of the editors is further betrayed by the pseudo-definitions of grunt jargon sprinkled throughout the book; these should have been farmed out to someone with the pitch-perfect ear of, say, K.G. Schneider.
By now, we're all aware that post-modernists can't see the forest for the trees they're busily reducing to sawdust, but doctrinaire shrillness is irrelevant to the value of this text. The lucid narratives and whiskey-strong poetic imagery of Powder beg no feminist apology. Skip the prefatory nonsense and plunge into its forest of words. Like Little Red Riding Hood on her fabled mission to win the heart and mind of Grandma, you'll find it strange, frightening, and ultimately rewarding.