Kayla Williams enlisted in the US army at the age of twenty-three and learnt Arabic in order to be Military Intelligence. She was posted to Iraq, staying for a year. This book was sold as telling how it was to be “Young and Female in the US Army.”
On some pages I was really disappointed, on others I was fascinated. The beginning is frustrating, lots of anecdotes about the injustices of sexual inequality then compromising paragraphs about “partying with the guys” and having casual sex. I’d heard Williams on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and was attracted to the book by her seeming intelligence and eloquence. This I was not getting from Love My Rifle. Just a lot of sex and swearing.
However, once in Iraq, in between the swearing and gripes about the reality of being female, there were interesting insights. All depressing.
War is degrading and dehumanising. It turns people crazy so that they do things they wouldn’t normally do. Williams describes the situations they live in; the clothes you have to wear, the heat, the deprivations, no showers or toilets - if you had dysentery, would you like to deal with it holding a plastic bag to your mouth and one to your backside with nowhere to wash? And the pressure of wondering if you are going to get killed, what that does to you and your attitude towards locals – “If you see someone heading toward you, he could be approaching to offer you information. He could have an explosive device strapped to his waist and be about to kill you. He might want to ask for food. You have to make that call – instantaneously...It did occur to me that I was seeing a part of myself I would never have seen otherwise”.
But if you spend time in this aggressive and unnatural environment, you’re going to lose the connection to what is normal and acceptable in regular society. Williams’ war wasn’t really about killing people but about living in uncomfortable conditions doing not a lot that seems productive. This book allowed me a little more understanding about how people can be warped into committing atrocities. It made me think that war, the way it’s fought and lived, can never be productive for anyone on any side.
It was the small, seemingly insignificant details which I found most distressing and did most damage to my opinion of the US army. For example, when they are in convoy they hurl their rubbish out of the trucks. I imagined thousands of American soldiers littering Iraq with plastic bottles and chocolate wrappers, an image of utter ignorance and disrespect.
Williams describes the depressing incompetence of the military; inept officers; no apparent coherent strategy; soldiers just hanging around getting nervous and as a result intimidating Iraqis; orders to secure locations with razor wire, ending healthy and uplifting interaction with local people. “You had to wonder if the subsequent souring of relations with the locals was connected to the escalation in our security. Whether when you cut people’s access off to their religious shrines and began to treat them like criminals, they then maybe started to act like criminals?”
There were sections of the book when I felt Williams belittles her intelligence and let herself down – but then she was just being honest about what she’d done and they were aspects of her character I wasn’t so keen on – she admits she learnt much from the army. I’m still not sure what work she actually DID, “running ops” was just listening I think, but that’s probably just a fault of my ignorance. But her reflections and mental wrangling were interesting – and reassuring. Speaking Arabic she is able to interact and relate to Iraqis on a positive level, they’re not all just “the enemy” a categorisation she admits many soldiers default to when they are constantly being shot at or ambushed. It’s interesting to see her culture shock when she returns home, how she views her compatriots having seen a very different life. “Everyone in America was fat. Everyone was on some stupid diet. How could a diet encourage you to eat bacon and forbid you to eat bananas?”
She’s not positive about the war; she went into the army for financial rather than ideological reasons. Was that foolish or naive? But at least she questions the deeper purpose of what exactly was trying to be achieved in Iraq. “The more we know about what brought about this war in the first place, the harder and harder it gets. It was a year of my life. And what the fuck for? What was it all about? Not having an answer for that makes it hard. Makes it feel dirty.” Soldiers are professional; war is what they’re paid to do. That may be so, but as this book so vividly shows, soldiers are also human.
As for the reflections on being Young and Female in the US Army, this is a tough issue. If you are a female in a male dominated environment, do you put up and shut up or do you feel angry about men looking at your boobs as you walk across the “chow” hall? Surrounded by hundreds of young men, full of fear and adrenaline, sexually frustrated, can you do your job properly or is the sexually-discriminating reality that you are, as a woman, by definition a distraction, a temptation, however good at your job you might be? Can there ever be true equality in such an unnatural social situation?