“The Lonely Soldier” by Helen Benedict

The Lonely Soldier

The Lonely Soldier

Helen Benedict

If you still harbor any starry-eyed illusions about the Iraq war as a noble endeavor, or of the military as a welcoming place for women, this book will dispel them. Focusing largely on the experiences of a fairly diverse group (two white, one Mexican-American, one African-American, one Native American, all, of course, working class, all sergeants or lower) of 5 women, with additional side stories from other women, it describes a war that was characterized by incompetence and stunning callousness, fought by women who were told they were too fragile and flakey to go into combat, but who were put into combat situations nonetheless–both against the “enemy” and against their own brothers-in-arms.

Stories of women in the US military like to focus on back-patting feel-good tales of patriotic women who overcome obstacles, not least of which is their own femaleness, to be accepted as the equals of men and serve in elite units or the officer corps. Benedict’s subjects, however, are mainly women who signed up for murky motives, like escaping an abusive family situation at home, and ended up in low-ranking, low-prestige positions. Several of them were reservists in the National Guard and had no expectation of ever being deployed in a war oversees, with the more idealistic among them hoping to help out during natural disasters and things like that, and the rest hoping to get career training and money for college. Instead what they got was lengthy deployments to a war they didn’t believe in, an experience that left them physically and emotionally shattered, with their problems ignored and discounted upon their return home, since after all, women don’t go into combat and aren’t “real” soldiers.

One could criticize this book for only showing the most negative side of the military life and women’s experiences in it. All of the women Benedict features were subjected to extensive harassment, and some of them were raped by their own men. She does say that women’s experiences vary tremendously depending on what environment they find themselves in, with the medical corps, for example, which is almost 40% female, a largely harassment-free zone and a comparatively welcoming place for women.

These soldiers, however, most of whom were drivers and prison guards, were one of very women in their units, and found themselves sharing sleeping and bathroom facilities with their mainly hostile male “comrades,” who mocked them and denigrated their abilities while assigning them to particularly dirty or dangerous tasks. The women are all surprised, in retrospect, at how accepting they were of this treatment: indeed, one of the more interesting if alarming points the book makes is how people are habituated to mistreatment, of themselves by others and of others by themselves, by their military training. Most of the women accept the dehumanization of boot camp and the terrible conditions they found themselves in, as well as the constant sexual harassment; the only thing that provokes real outrage is the racism that the women of color experience, although their indignation on their own behalf does not necessarily prevent them from tossing around racial slurs and treating the Iraqis exactly as they themselves do not want to be treated.

Indeed, most of the women find themselves doing things they’re not proud of, such as abusing prisoners or firing into crowds of civilians, even as, or maybe at times because, their male comrades tell them they can’t be trusted to be tough enough to, say, shoot down or run over children. Several of the women struggle between their desire to protect children and to protect their comrades, a struggle that is made all the harder by the growing knowledge that their commitment to their comrades and the others in their squad or unit is entirely one-way: they see the male soldiers as brothers in arms, while the men see them as rape victims.

The book jumps back and forth between different women’s timelines, which at times could be confusing but makes it extremely readable, as the “action” cuts from soldier to soldier as their stories progress, ending with a set of suggestions for making the military less hostile for women. This is a monumental undertaking, because, as the author is at pains to point out, military culture is all about being a “no girls allowed” club. Some might even question whether the effort is worth it at all: should we be subjecting women to this brutalization and turning them into hardened killers? Do we maybe have enough of those already? But, as Benedict points out, the military is one of the few providers of opportunity in poor and rural areas, and is a path to power and influence in the upper echelons of the government. Denying women that is unfair to them and detrimental to the country. Furthermore, the comparative civilization of the more women-heavy branches such as the medical corps suggests that what is needed to improve conditions is to bring in more women, not fewer. Who knows? Maybe with enough women in positions of influence, the military might even start killing fewer children, which might actually allow the US to win a few “hearts and minds” battles after all.

Buy links: Barnes and NobleAmazon

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