We are approaching the ten year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. I am participating in a project called the Iraq War Reading Pledge. The pledge is to read a memoir about the war by someone who was there, a soldier, a journalist, an Iraqi citizen, between February 1st and March 20th.
You can follow the pledge here. Good luck!
A lot of the people who read my blog are young infantry officers. I usually find out awkwardly at some formation when a random 2LT comes up to me and says “Hey, I read your blog.” So, to the young LTs reading this. You should read Love My Rifle More Than You because you may soon have women serving with you (probably not too soon). In the field. Taking poops. This, along with Hesitation Kills offers some of the best insight you can get on what it’s like to be a female in the modern military. It sounds pretty tough.
I just finished reading Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams. I feel terrible, because this is a book I should have read a long time ago. I’ve met Kayla on several occasions and I’ve had her book for several years, but I never got to reading it. When I first decided to come up with a list of books that I think would be good for a junior officer to read, I knew her’s was one of them and it’s been on my list from the beginning. With the decision to rescind the combat exclusion policy, it seemed to be the perfect time to revisit the book.
Like a lot of soldier memoirs, this one takes place (mostly) during the opening of the Iraq War (2003-2004). Kayla writes a little bit about her life before the military, which colors her experience in the Army and in war (pissed off, rebellious youth). Kayla was a rebel growing up – not what we think of when we think of typical Army material (although for some reason the Army attracts rebels too). She signs up as an Arabic linguist before 9/11 and suddenly finds her skills more useful than I’m sure she ever bargained for. She eventually is assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and deploys to Kuwait before the invasion, and then bounces around Iraq doing missions with artillerymen and the infantry.
Pretty standard stuff in terms of the Iraq War memoir. Kayla covers a lot of time through the book and shoots through what were probably some pretty significant events to show the fuller picture. If the book has any faults, it’s that I wanted to know more about anyone of her experiences in the Army. She could have chosen anything – the animosity she felt to her female NCOs, the strange relationships she had with her peers, or the decision to wear mascara to a USO show and how that became a big deal. I’d have liked to see a lot of these smaller things unpacked and discussed in more detail. But that’s not the book Kayla wrote, so it’s a fault of me just wanting to know more.
What makes this book different from other war memoirs is it focuses much on Kayla’s experience as a female in the Army – and deployed – at a time when war and deployment was very much new for most of the Army. The beauty of the book is Kayla’s honesty about how she felt as a woman who was often objectified by her fellow soldiers, even though that can make for some uncomfortable reading. She talks about the ambivalence she felt in trying to perform to a higher standard in order to shut up her critics, who were always looking for a reason to look down on women, and the struggle in trying to resist the urge to use the greatest asset she had – the fact that she was female – as an excuse to get out of details or carrying something heavy.
Besides the insight on what it’s like to be “young and female in the US Army” Kayla hits some important points that reminded me of some things I had forgotten. Reading about her redployment home, and how everything seemed so trivial and insignificant, made me remember how I felt those same things in the year(s) when I first came home (as an aside, there’s no hope for me now – I’m too far down the rabbit hole of reality television and created drama to ever experience that self-righteousness again). Maybe because I’m so far down that rabbit hole, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the drama between Kayla and her various female NCOs who were all described as prissy and seemingly incompetent when it came to leadership. This reminded me of people I knew who grew up in the Army of the 1990s who did not expect – and were not prepared – for the Army of the 2000s.
Lastly, the part that stuck out to me the most was the real pride Kayla described when she received an award, an ARCOM, from the infantry unit that she had served with for a short period of time during her deployment. It reminded me of how small things, in this case, processing some paperwork to recognize a job well done, can go on to mean the world to someone who joined the Army to do good, but is often just pushed through the grinder (put your men and women in for awards!).
Incidentally, I had the book on me the other day and a fellow infantryman asked me what it was about, to which I replied that it was “About the experiences of a female soldier in the Army.” He replied, “Yeah, I mean, but what is it about?”
As if that wasn’t enough.
Since the decision to rescind the combat exclusion policy, women in combat generally and women in the infantry specifically has been the topic du jour here at Fort Benning (home of the Infantry). Most still think that this is something that’s not going to happen, or that it shouldn’t happen. To me, it seems like the time for argument is over and the time for realization and actualization is now. As leaders, it’s now our job to understand the unique challenges and opportunities fuller integration of the military will bring.
Any leader that wants to get ahead of the game and understand some of the issues that will be faced in a more integrated military would be doing himself a favor by reading this book.
These are books that I have discovered or had recommended to me and would be good to read as a junior officer. My goal is to get through all of them before I’m no longer junior. Any suggestions?
Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams) 2/3/13
Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair) 6/10/12
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once an Eagle (Anton Myrer)
The Good Soldiers (David Finkel) 9/19/12
Black Hawk Down (Mark Bowden) 10/1/12