Monthly Archives: May 2015

Book: Ashley’s War

Ashley's War

I had seen this books on many recommended lists and always felt drawn to it, but military books aren’t my thing. I just don’t understand that pull to serve in that capacity. I don’t agree with a lot of the military decisions that have been made in the last thirty years, so the thought of volunteering to go where I’m told and put my life on the line under orders of people I don’t really respect isn’t something I’m ever going to do. I absolutely respect and admire people who feel that calling and are willing to face that fear to do what they’ve been asked to do, but I know I will never serve in that way.

That said, I could not ignore the pull I had to read Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon about women in combat attached to Special Ops teams. I’m so glad I did not let my aversion to the military keep me from reading this incredibly moving and inspiring book. While the through line of the book is Ashley White, as indicated by the title, the stories of the many other women who joined the Cultural Support Teams are woven throughout. CSTs were created because the Special Ops teams were having difficulties searching areas in the Muslim world where women are segregated and it’s extremely disrespectful for a man outside the family to see them, much less question them. Western women are considered a third gender. Not a woman who needs to be sequestered, but also not a threatening male, so female soldiers can talk to and search the women, gathering valuable intel for the men of the Special Ops teams.

What I really enjoyed about this book was how it illustrates that women can serve and be assets, not by trying to be aggressive and loud like the men, but by being women, by bringing their femininity and unique female viewpoint to work with the men. Men and women are different. That’s never going to change. For so long, women have tried to act like men in order to survive in a man’s world. That holds true for the military as well as civilian life. Each of us needs to be true to ourselves and use our own unique talents to contribute to the whole.

Stories like these need to be told. These women worked twice as hard as the men and had to put up with a lot of harassment and judgment from men thinking women couldn’t possibly do the job. I laughed when the women were in weapons training and the instructor was shocked that the women listened to him when he made corrections, and then they worked to make the adjustments permanent. The men always whined and told him they knew what they were doing, their daddies had taught them to shoot, etc. The women wanted to be there and learn as much as possible. The other story that to me showed the difference and the resilience of women was when during a long day of training, one of the women got her period. She was so tired and sweating so much, she didn’t realize that she was soaked in blood from her waist to her knees until she was about to be lifted onto another woman’s shoulders for a drill. The other women just joked about it. The male instructors were uncomfortable and a little freaked out, like what do we do with this? The woman in question just went off into the woods, took care of business and then continued with the training. That’s what women do, and it’s that aspect that needs to be recognized and utilized in every area of our society.

While I can’t identify with the desire to join the military, what I do understand is the calling these women felt to participate in this program. They wanted to push themselves and prove themselves, and they felt this was something they had to do.  I envy them that. To find that passion and drive and direction is something so few people find. I’m still searching for my calling.

I always enjoy reading about women who have pushed the boundaries set for women in our society. (On a side note, check out Lemmon’s other book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.) I deeply admire these women, who volunteered to be some of the first women in combat because they wanted the choice. That’s what being a feminist is about. Having the choice to do what you are called to do and what you are physically capable of doing, regardless of gender. There are some amazing women out there, but too often their stories get lost because they’re not as outspoken in their successes. We penalize women for celebrating themselves, but feel men in the same situation are completely justified in promoting their accomplishments. That needs to change. These women have every right to be recognized for their achievements, and more women and men need to support that. More girls need to see that. Little kids of both genders start out saying, “I’m awesome.” Somewhere along the way the girls learn that isn’t what good little girls do and they suppress that, while the boys are encouraged to continue saying it. In order for girls to maintain their knowledge of their own awesomeness, women have to step up and start owning their own awesomeness.

This post turned into a combination book review and life coaching session, but it all goes together. Celebrate yourself. Do what fills you with joy, whether that’s being an artist or being a soldier. I recently read that Ashley’s War has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon, and It’s What I Do is going to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. I guess that’s where the artist meets the soldier. A full circle of women being awesome.

TV: Planet Earth

Planet EarthI’m so late to this party, I’ve missed it by a decade. I’ve been watching all the incarnations of the series Planet Earth (2006) on BBC America. I remember it coming out but never got around to watching it. It’s simply amazing. From Blue Planet (2001) all the way through to the most recent series Frozen Earth (2011), which tells you how long I’ve been out of the loop. Because I’m watching the BBC America ones, the fabulous David Attenborough is the narrator. The American versions had Sigourney Weaver and Oprah, and they changed the script to have more American phrases. I prefer David Attenborough and all the Britishisms, even though I have to mentally convert all the metric measurements. I just saw David Attenborough on The Graham Norton Show; he’s 88 and still climbing mountains, going on all these adventures and filming them. I want to be doing that at 88. Hell, I want to be doing that now.

The photography in Planet Earth is incredible. If you haven’t seen it, you should. I was thinking this would be better to show to kids than some children’s programs and something I would have been more interested in as a child than cartoons or Sesame Street. Nature shows to me are really travel shows. Every time I see a new place, I want to go there. I’ve added many new trips to my list from this series.

Book: It’s What I Do

It's What I Do

I just finished reading Lynsey Addario’s book It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War.  It’s uplifting to see someone who has been to war zones and who has photographed some of the most horrific scenes who still has her sensitivity and compassion intact.  This beautiful autobiography about being a photojournalist all over the world while trying to maintain relationships and a connection with the everyday world is an insight into a different way of life.  It’s also inspiring that she found a man who would support her career and passion and not resent that she’s in Iraq for a month, especially after she talked about relationship after relationship crashing and burning because the man didn’t want to wait around for her.

Years ago, I read an article by Elizabeth Rubin about embedding with US soldiers in Afghanistan while four months pregnant.  As I was reading It’s What I Do, I realized Lynsey Addario was the photographer with Elizabeth Rubin for those two months.  These two unbelievable women were climbing mountains, sleeping on the ground and getting shot at, one carrying a baby and the other carrying an extra thirty pounds of camera gear in addition to their forty pound packs.  I have no desire to put myself into a combat zone, but I think this proves that women are just as capable and may even be better in some situations.

Addario has some keen observations about the US soldiers in combat.  While she is respectful of the soldiers’ role in war zones, she’s also diligent about showing the truth as it is, not the government’s propaganda version.  There were a couple of episodes where she makes a valid point of how sending in nineteen-year-old boys from conservative areas who have a lot of prejudices isn’t the best idea.  Teenagers are not known for their diplomacy or sensitivity in situations, and I think the US’s image overseas would be helped if we had more people like Lynsey Addario on the front lines.  Granted she’s not a soldier in combat and I’m speaking about something I’ve never experienced myself, but her viewpoint is one we need to see more of.  Specifically, women as either soldiers or journalists or aid workers.  How women see the world and react to it is entirely different from men.  We need to learn that that perspective isn’t a weaker one.  It’s a strength that can be used to create a better world.  We just need to get that voice out there, and this book certainly helps.