Bitch or Slut
Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army
Kayla Williams with Michael E. Straub
New York: W.W Norton Company, 2005, 290 pp., hardcover, $24.95
One in seven service members serving in Iraq is female. One in three members of the army's military intelligence personnel in Iraq is female. Although classified as noncombatants and refused billets in the military's combat arms, women increasingly find themselves in the same places, under the same direct fire, as men. Although the regular army still refuses to train women as snipers, the Air National Guard has been sending women to the army's sniper school for three years. A group of women soldiers, nicknamed the "lionesses of Iraq"Â now goes fully armed on house arrests in Baghdad. Women have come in harm's way in every war, but the current war has featured women being both fired upon and firing back, sustaining wounds and dying, or returning with the physical scars (even amputations) and the psychological symptoms of war at close range. Love My Rifle More Than You tells the story of an ex-punkster turned National Public Radio fundraiser, a former runaway and rebel turned college graduate and homeowner. Kayla Williams joined the army reserves in January 2000 and a few months later signed on for a five-year commitment to the regular army in exchange for a $15,000 signing bonus and training in military intelligence (specifically interpreting signals) and Arabic. She served with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq as a linguist from February 2003 until February 2004.
Never a spit-and-polish soldier in boot camp, Williams did what was required: "If a sergeant told me to spit-shine my boots, I did it. But I never did it just to do it. Who gave a shit?"Â But Williams did give a shit when it came to exceeding the physical fitness demands required of women, choosing instead to meet the standards required of men. She did her two-mile run in fifteen minutes, rather than the twenty allowed females, and over twice as many pushups as most army women. The guys in her unit, Williams explains, "gave us females endless shit for the different female standards on PT tests: Girls get off easy...Girls can't hack it."Â Williams never questions the validity of such assertions; she simply adopts the male standard as her own.
There has been little grumbling about the age norming of fitness standards across the military, but the chorus of complaints about different standards for women has reverberated since woman began training alongside men in most branches of the military. (The Marine Corps, which still holds fast to its separate-but-equal gender integration policy, is the exception.) Defenders of different requirements for men and women insist that such standards simply measure general fitness, not specific strength levels for specific jobs. Opponents argue that the lower standards for women demonstrate that women are less qualified. Women, as a group, do have lower levels of upper-body strength and higher levels of cognitive ability than similar groups of men, but individual differences always defy the average. In his book War and Gender, Joshua Goldstein charts the intersecting bell curves of men and women who completed the 1997 New York Marathon. Although the median woman in the race was eleven percent slower than the median male, the vast majority of men came in well after the fastest woman, and the vast majority of women crossed the line well ahead of the slowest man.
One moment Williams characterizes herself as professional, competent, "tough and proud to be tough"; the next, she objectifies herself. She tells the reader that she's "always been a girl that catches a guy's eye."Â Presumably, she's not the "mousy, nothing special"Â type of female soldier who, according to Williams, might be rated a five stateside but in Iraq jumps up to an eight--"one hot babe." She explains it this way: "After you're in-country for a few months, all the girls begin to look good--or at least better."Â The "you"Â in this statement is as rife with gender ambiguity as the book's title, a line from a marching chant: "Cindy, Cindy, Cindy Lou/ Love My Rifle More Than You./ You used to be my beauty queen./Now I love my M-16."Â It's one thing for a woman to sing of loving her rifle in training; it's another for her to mourn the loss of her Cindy Lou. The narrator of Love My Rifle tries simultaneously to assume the position of a team member valued for her skills and of a woman looking at men looking at her. As the latter, she claims the power that comes from being the only woman in a group of men--but her "queen for a year"Â status can easily be destabilized by the appearance of another objectified woman: And I know about something else. How these same guys you want to piss on become your guys. Another girl enters your tent, and they look at her the way they looked at you, and what drove you crazy with anger suddenly drives you crazy with jealousy. They're yours. Fuck,
you left your husband to be with them, you walked out on him for them.
Williams prefaces her account of her time in the Iraq with long discussions of her troubled teen years and of her romance with a Lebanese man who turned out to be married. However, she tells only one anecdote about her civilian husband. Before her deployment overseas, but after her assignment to an air assault division, she and her husband go to see the film Black Hawk Down. He is so disturbed by the film, and so fearful that, like the assault helicopter crew in the film, she, too, might die, that he cries. His show of emotion revolts Williams:
I was freaked because the movie made
him cry--in public. There were people
I knew in the audience.
It made him look like a big pussy.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the marriage ends soon thereafter, and Williams embraces the army, whose members work hard to repress any show of feminizing emotion and to project a rock-hard masculinity. No one in this book embodies the army's hypermasculinity more than Sergeant Kelly. He's the guy who throws the unit's puppy into the air but fails to catch it, so that it falls to its death on the rocks below. He's the guy who, according to Williams,
could be a real jackass.
Literally, he'd say to me,
"Fix me some eggs, bitch."
And I'd fix him eggs.
Because I'm retarded. Or nice. Or whatever.
Williams reflects on her fascination with Kelly and on "how much women like assholes,"Â but she never connects her attraction to such men with her decision to join the military. Kelly, who suffered severe head wounds in Iraq, moves in with Williams when they return to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, their home base. The great contemporary memoirs have consistent narrative voices, vivid scenes, and three-dimensional characters. Riding on the tide of the memoir's popularity, a group of co-authored military memoirs (for example, One Woman's Army:: The Commanding General of Abu Ghraib Tells Her Story, by Janis Karpinski and Steven Strasser; Ruff's War: A Navy Nurse on the Frontline in Iraq by Cheryl Lynn Ruff and K. Sue Roper; For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire by James Yee and Aimee Molloy) crowded bookstore shelves this fall. As doubt casts a longer and longer shadow over the official justification for the Iraq war, as faith in the press frays at the edges, and as increasing skepticism meets Washington efforts to spin a hopeful story of a postwar Iraq, Americans seem to welcome the limited terrain of the memoir. But collaborative memoirs (an oxymoron, really) raise special questions about authorship, structure, and content: Whose words are we reading? Where does one voice end and another begin? How was the story constructed?
The idea for Love My Rifle More Than You, according to Williams, was Michael Staub's. (He is author of Voices of Persuasion: Politics of Representation in 1930s America.) When Williams, Staub's former star student at Bowling Green State University, went off to Iraq, he wrote to her and suggested the book, then sought an agent and secured a contract for the two of them with Norton. After Williams returned from Iraq in 2004, Staub conducted more than thirty hours of taped interviews. Williams vetted the text he generated from the interviews. Unfortunately, the seams of this collaboration still show. The hip, irreverent, on-the-scene narrator, whose comments are full of piss and vinegar as well as plenty of "shits,"Â "fucks,"Â "tits,"Â and "asses,"Â periodically steps aside for a more mature speaker who reflects on the experiences of the young linguist. Although the book is generally written in past tense, occasional present tense interludes sound as though they are passages from a journal, awkwardly inserted between the bits of oral history. For example, in telling about driving a truck as part of a convoy, Williams explains the female soldiers' discomfort with the male soldiers with whom they must travel and the difficulty of relieving themselves under these circumstances:
These 1st Brigade soldiers made me uncomfortable...
But now after a few hours bouncing in the backseat,
Lauren can't take it any longer.[emphasis mine]
What may be the typical shifts in tense that occur in oral speech make for a bumpy read in written prose.
Long on salty language but short on fully developed characters, Love My Rifle keeps the spotlight almost exclusively on Williams. Even when another character appears, such as Williams' fellow soldier and best friend Zoe, she can't upstage Williams: It's unusual for me to pursue a friendship with another woman, but I liked Zoe...Beautiful and amazing Zoe. Crazy and wild. Small tits. Great ass. Later guys would joke that the two of us put together would make the perfect girl. My rack, Zoe's ass. Although Williams tells us she has meaningful conversations with Zoe, she does not tell us about their content. Similarly, although she tells us that she and her male friends share a taste in music, she never explains which music they like or why it is important to them. Williams gives sustained attention to only one character other than herself. Her female team leader, Staff Sergeant Moss, certainly deserves no awards for her handling of her smarter, better-educated subordinate, but in describing Moss, Williams can't see through the smoke of her resentment. Moss, she claims, fails to lead by example, commanding subordinates to don their flak jackets yet wearing none herself. She orders Williams out when there is firing in the area. To punish Moss, Williams refuses to speak to her for days or to stand at ease when Moss orders her to do so, manipulating standing at attention, a sign of respect, to serve up the ultimate disrespect. When Moss begs her to stop, Williams remains stubbornly intractable:
Staff Sergeant Moss is crying. It isn't anything huge. Just a tear or two. But I see it, though I might not have noticed if I weren't studying her. The bitch. No one sheds a tear in front of a subordinate, not even in wartime, according to the strict unwritten code of military conduct that Williams wholeheartedly endorses. Although she complains that male soldiers fail to treat her as a fellow human being, she herself refuses to extend that regard to Moss, even after an officer intervenes between the sergeant and her resentful subordinate. In a culture that categorizes all women as either bitches or sluts, Moss, to Williams, is one of the bitches. (Near the end of Williams' stay in Iraq, after the male members of her unit have shunned her because they view her as a slut, Williams decides she'd rather be considered a bitch.) In the "weird little microcosm of society on steroids"Â that is the army, neither Williams nor any other woman can escape sexism. The guys in Williams' unit collect money ($80) and a bag of M&Ms to bribe her to show them her breasts. During a change of watch one night, a fellow soldier tries to force her to have sex with him. A continual barrage of misogynist slang and jokes occupies days filled with nothing but waiting. Presumably desiring to be one of the guys, Williams joins the banter with a joke of her own: "'What's the first thing a woman does when she gets back from a battered woman's shelter?' Ans: 'The dishes, if she's smart.'"Â The flip side of Williams' toughness is abjection. The army culture demands a denial of the feminine, even from women. In Williams' case, this manifests itself in the pathology of anorexia, the morphing of the woman's body into the boy's. What do we learn from this book? That the military is a sexist culture? That a young woman in a war zone can feel just as sexually starved as a man? That military women are either bitches or sluts--the former closed and resentful, the latter open and indiscriminate? That gender matters continually and insistently except in a crisis, when women are welcomed as valuable members of the team? If these warmed-over observations were all that Williams had to offer, the book would be simply another story of a woman caught in a culture that devalues her. But a more important and urgent story lies behind the pumped-up drama of Williams' struggle to be one of the boys. The most important contribution Love My Rifle makes to descriptions of the war in Iraq rests in Williams' first-hand accounts of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
After Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay are killed in Mosul by special forces, the Americans erect roadblocks throughout the city to detain anyone who looks even slightly suspicious. The number of detainees far outstrips the personnel the army can provide to process them. Desperate for interpreters and aware that Williams is in Mosul for a few days of R&R, a human intelligence unit asks her to help. When assigned to question a man pulled off the streets for drunkenness, Williams begins with a gentle touch and offers him one of her cigarettes. Instead of accepting, the man, hands cuffed behind his back, indicates that he'd rather she remove one of his own cigarettes from his shirt pocket. Whether she is angry at having to work while on temporary leave or simply fed up with the war, William yells back at the sorry soul before her:
"Fuck you!" I said.
"I'm trying to be nice by offering you a cigarette.
But if you don't want my cigarette, you can screw yourself.
You won't have any cigarette."
Disturbed by her reaction, the drunken detainee starts to whine, and Williams, enraged, grabs a broom handle and bangs it loudly on a pipe attached to the wall. "Rise and fucking shine, you asshole!"Â she commands. Reflecting on the experience with her characteristic candor, Williams adds,
Yelling at this guy did...feel perversely good. Because it was not something I was allowed to do. No one does this in our society; we don't just decide we can scream at random people who have their hands tied and who have no power to resist. I don't like to admit it, but I enjoyed having power over this guy.
In discussions with other interrogators who do this job day in and day out, Williams notes their similar enjoyment of the process, which puts the powerful conqueror above the puny detainee: All of us, guys and girls, were in a situation in Iraq where we were powerless much of the time. Powerless to change what we did. Powerless to go home. Powerless to make any real decisions about how we were living our lives while deployed. And then we found ourselves in this situation where we had all this power over another person. And suddenly we could do whatever the fuck we wanted to them.
Three months later an interrogator again asks for Williams' assistance. He tells her he needs a female Arabic linguist. Assuming that he wants her to question a female detainee, Williams accompanies him to "the cages,"Â where loud rock music blares day and night to increase prisoners' anxiety and prevent them from sleeping. She witnesses prisoners being forced to chant "I love Bush"Â and "I love America,"Â and to do deep knee-bends for long periods of time. She is taken to an interrogation room, and a detainee is brought in blindfolded and then stripped in front of her. When an interrogator removes the blindfold, the naked detainee immediately sees that the person he stands before is a woman. Williams is instructed to humiliate him in Arabic. She says, "Do you think you can please a woman with that thing?" Other Americans in the room flick lit cigarettes at him and hit him in the face. After one more prisoner and a couple of hours, Williams tells the interrogator that she no longer wants to participate. When she asks him whether such practices are in violation of the Geneva Conventions, he responds, "The terrorists don't follow the Geneva Conventions--so why should we?"Â Williams' account offers further evidence of Americans' systemic abuse of Iraqi detainees. Not only were women used in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo to sexually humiliate Iraqi detainees, they were, according to Williams, used in Mosul as well.
When the army read Williams' manuscript to clear it for publication, it called attention to the scenes of prisoner abuse and threatened Williams with court martial. According to Williams (in an August 25, 2005, interview with National Public Radio's Terry Gross), the army expressed no interest in hearing more about what had happened in Mosul's "cages"Â; it simply didn't want her to talk about it. She retained a lawyer, the threat vanished, and the book, including its version of the prisoner abuse story, was cleared for publication. So what separates Kayla Williams from Lynndie England? A smile? England smiles for the camera; Williams tells us about her distaste for what she did. What if the interrogator had instructed Williams to smile, thereby increasing the humiliation? Or is the difference between a digital photo and a written description? A system that institutionalizes torture in the name of security, that imagines a right brutally to extract information by shame and threat of physical force, makes bitches of us all.
Carol Burke is the author of Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-and-Tight: Gender, Folklore, and Changing Military Culture.