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.