Report from Iraq

Love my Rifle More than You      by Kayla Williams

290 pp., W.W. Norton & Co., 2005 ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

Odd title, but strangely appropriate, taken from an army marching chant: "Cindy, Cindy, Cindy Lou / Love my rifle more than you / You once were my beauty queen / Now I love my M-16. " Kayla Williams, single and unattached, needed a job and wanted something out of the ordinary, so she enlisted in the US army. Product of a broken home and a somewhat irregular upbringing, she has sharp insight and wit, and this is her story. It reads well and provokes thought.

    When she enlisted, she made a deal--the army would get a few extra years of service, and in return would teach her Arabic and train her for intelligence work. Naturally, she ended serving in Iraq--for one year, described in considerable detail. That was the first year of the US war in Iraq, starting with the invasion and ending when matters were only starting to go sour, with suicide bombs and IEDs or "improvised explosive devices." It was never a picnic. Even without the brutal summer heat, Iraq must have seemed to US servicemen as completely alien. To a soldier fluent in Arabic--like the author--the picture is only slightly clearer; to the average soldier it must have appeared utterly confusing.

    Tension is everpresent. That car trying to weave into a military convoy--is that a terrorist trying to plant a bomb, or just a pushy Iraqi driver, engaged in the national pastime of trying to get ahead of traffic? Quick, now (gun loaded, finger on the safety catch): shoot, or hold your fire?

    The reader will wonder here about many things (the book is a page turner), but three come to mind right away. What are Iraqis like? Kayla comes across some appalling poverty, especially out in the country; yet when those people view you as a friend, they can be surprisingly generous with the little they have. What is it like to be a woman soldier in the US army? Depends of course where you are and what you do, but a woman in the field (such as the author) faces many of the same problems as any soldier. A lot depends on one's wits and resourcefulness, on making friends and learning to shrug off occasional army stupidity. Luckily, Kayla is good at all of these.

    And the big question--how good really is the US army? The limited evidence here makes it hard to decide. Some soldiers Kayla served with were very good, resilient and dedicated. Others were mechanical and uninspired--and when in command, uninspiring--playing the army's game (to use her term, "assholes"). In the end, the quality of any army depends on what it is called upon to do. In WW-II and Korea front lines were clearly drawn, and much of the army's training is still oriented towards such wars. The Iraq war--like the ones in Viet-Nam and Afghanistan--is fought amid a civilian population, most of which just wants to live as normally as possible, assured of its safety, food, shelter and a few comforts. Very different.

    A lot then depends on how Iraqis and Americans relate. Do civilians regard Americans as being on their side, trying genuinely to guide them to a better life? And do Americans try to understand the Iraqis? So few Americans speak their language--can there be a meaningful interaction?

    Kayla's story reinforces the impression that the US army was ill prepared for this kind of fighting, with no clear separation of bystanders and combatants. Considering that such situations are becoming increasingly common, perhaps instead of asking "how good really is the army?" a more meaningful question might be "are any lessons being learned?" Having read this book, one can only wonder.



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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 24 November 2005