There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Friday, October 12, 2007

Band of Sisters on the bus

Finished reading Kirsten Holmstedt's "Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq."

This is as much a book about women serving in combat in Iraq as it is about the author's own path of discovery:

Too old to enlist in the military, but young enough to remember how I felt when I was nineteen or twenty, I could not imagine myself as I was at that age driving a Humvee across the desert in Iraq while snipers hid in trees or on rooftops, preparing to kill me. How would I perform if duty required me to fight for my life and the lives of my friends?
But for me this is not really about the differences as it is about the sameness.

May 26, 2005, Haditha, Iraq. Fifty Marine infantrymen and two female combat service support Marines are taking a break in an abandoned four-story school. The women have been brought along to search Iraqi women the patrol encounters as it sweeps the city. The Marines were bedded down, trying to get some sleep, when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in a window. Lance Cpl. Carrie Blais and a male staff sergeant took up a position at a window overlooking the schoolyard.
Captain Sean O'Neill came into the classroom and told the Marines there were no friendlies in the area. Anyone on the street was a possible threat. The staff sergeant ordered Blais to fire on anyone with a weapon. Less than two minutes later, Blais spotted a male Iraqi about 400 meters away. He was wearing a white robe and carrying an AK-47 as he ran from the one lone house to the other houses.

"There's someone there," Blais yelled to the staff sergeant.

It was Blais's first time firing at someone. She was scared. She didn't want to take out a random person.

"Shoot," the staff sergeant yelled back.

Without hesitation, Blais fired two shots, hitting her target in the right leg. His leg jerked and he fell. The AK-47 landed a short distance away. The Iraqi started crawling toward his weapon.

"Finish it," the staff sergeant yelled.

Blais fired two more shots. The Iraqi stopped moving as his white robe turned red.
There is a reason the Marines insist that women get the same infantry training as men.

Holmstedt's book profiles the experiences of Marine Lance Cpls. Carrie Blais and Priscilla Kispetik; Army Capt. Robin Brown, a Kiowa helicopter pilot; Army Specialist Rachelle Spors, a medic; Marine Capt. Amy "Krusty" McGrath, an F-18 Hornet weapons system operator; Navy Aviation Boatswain's Mate Handler Marcia Lillie; Marine Lance Cpl. Chrissy DeCaprio, a turret gunner in a military police unit; Marine Capt. Vernice "Junk" Armour, a Cobra helicopter pilot who became the first black female combat aviator; Air Force Lt. Col. Polly Montgomery, a C-130 transport pilot who became the first female commander of a combat squadron; Marine Gunnery Sgt. Yolanda Mayo, a public affairs chief in Iraq; Navy Lt. Estella Salinas, a nurse responsible for a mobile surgical company in southern Iraq; and Army Sgt. Angela Jarboe, a long-haul trucker in Iraq.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it had only been 10 years since the military had opened up combat aircraft assignments to women. There were, and still are, many questions about how women in these new roles would fare in a war. Today, according to an NPR report, one in every seven U.S. military personnel in Iraq are women. The broad sweep of experience outlined by Holmstedt demonstrates that the old division between men and women in combat has been blurred, if not erased.

Holmstedt goes so far as to suggest her observations prove women's service in combat has been a success.
The heroics of America's mothers, daughter [sic], sisters, and wives on the battlefield can no longer be understated. In this war they have proven beyond a doubt that they can run convoys on the most dangerous roads in Iraq, man vehicles and personnel checkpoints, perform route clearance operations, and conduct quick reaction force operations when others got hit on the road with IEDs. They have boldly faced the threat of IEDs. They have been shot at and returned fire.
Holmstedt overreaches. Women are no more anxious to be shot at than men. As Army truck driver Sgt. Angela Jarboe explained to Holmstedt, staying behind when a convoy took to the road "usually meant doing maintenance on the trucks, filling up sand bags to fortify the compound, and picking up trash. The soldiers had the most fun on the convoys because it meant they were away from their company and could breathe. No officers looking over their shoulders."

If anything, the success of women in combat areas, despite the close quarters, has underscored the foolishness of continuing opposition to having openly homosexual men and women serve in the U.S. military. If heterosexual men and women can work together, why should the sexual orientation of any soldier be an issue? Military efficiency today is no more threatened by the presence of a gay man than it was by a negro man before integration of the military following World War II or by the increased number of women serving in the armed forces.

Heroism in combat is always about the team, the family, comrades in arms. It is about professionalism. Man or woman, gay or straight, makes no difference.

Holmstedt suggests momen may actually be the meanest soldiers in the field. As she explains:
There are psychological surveys about how much crueler women warriors are in battle than men, especially if they have children, because they are ferocious about protecting their young. ...The first thought that came to [Army Sgt. Angela] Jarboe's mind after the explosion was that she had to get back to her children. What's the first thought that comes to a man's mind? [Dr.] Davida [Boltz] said men are more self-oriented. They love their kids, but it's not like a mother.
Holmstedt is never far from the narrative of this book, and her constant injection of herself, although distracting, gives readers the opportunity to weigh how they view women in combat:
Between the two of them, [Army Sgt. Angela] Jarboe and [Army Sgt. Laura] Mitchell have five children. I realized that the same could be said if I had been sitting at a table with two soldiers who were fathers. Yet there is still a newness and vulgarity to women in war, to women attacking and even more so, to being attacked. There was a time lag in what we civilians knew, saw, and understood about women in uniform because most of their stories hadn't reached us. Women were in combat, but a part of me couldn't believe it. Their stories still seemed surreal. I never felt comfortable hearing them; only astonished and then a delicate desire for distance.
Holmstedt may see her desire for distance from these stories of war as a gender issue, but I see it as a symptom of America's broader uneasiness with the sacrifices we ask of our professional military personnel and their families. While they sacrifice, we go shopping.

One last point: I picked up this book because I read a review posted at the SacWomen web site. The review by W. H. McDonald Jr. of Elk Grove (originally published on Amazon) claimed , "This book is destined to become a military classic!" That is such a stretch of the truth that it could only have been written by someone with a financial interest in the sale of the book.

An interesting read, yes. If you wish to learn more about the experience of women in the Iraq war, Holmstedt offers a reasonable overview drawn from personal experiences of those she interviewed. A classic? No. Read any of S.L.A. Marshall's books to understand the definition of "classic." For an Iraq war example, try Bing West's "No True Glory, A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah" or the haunting short stories of John Crawford's "The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq."

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