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Bite the Bullet

The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in IraqThe Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq by Helen Benedict

Reviewed by Amy Herdy
Ms. Magazine

This dramatic statement against war in general and the Iraq war in particular starts with the book's cover photo, an image that makes its own powerful commentary: A woman soldier stands rigidly, Army-khaki-clad and freshly lipsticked, the stars and stripes behind her and a distant, hardened look in her eye. The dichotomy is played out in the book again and again as women deployed to Iraq must become fierce warriors in order to survive threats to their safety and souls. When they discover they are as much at risk from the men with whom they serve as they are from enemy fire, their disillusionment is first registered with the shock of abandonment, then with rage.

"They tell us (after we hit the deck from an incoming mortar shell) that we shouldn't walk alone at night on base. We, as in females," recounts National Guard Staff Sgt. Liz O'Herrin, who served in Iraq in 2006. "Screw you, you deploy me here and tell me it's not safe for me to walk alone to get a bite to eat because I'll probably get raped by one of our own?"

These servicewomen make the argument that true equality, not patriarchal protection, is what women on the front lines really need. "Don't look at me like I'm your little sister," Army Spc. Mickiela Montoya retorted to the men on her team, who fretted over her safety during an attack. "I'm a soldier, not a gender."

Whether the soldiers' language is plainspoken or poetic, Helen Benedict's book gives them a place to tell their stories. She reports that her subjects are haunted by the memories of desperate faces and maimed bodies, by the suffering of Iraqis they were illequipped to rescue: "They still couldn't help with what the people needed most -- the return of their sons, brothers and husbands; cures for their sick and deformed children; and peace."

It's a daunting endeavor to take the U.S. government to task, and at no time is this more difficult than during a war. When the challenger's weapon is the written word, each volley must be undeniably accurate, each phrase honed and aimed with care. Benedict makes some factual errors, and this reviewer disagrees with her definitions of sexual assault and post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite these glitches, The Lonely Soldier has strong merit as an account of women's military experiences in this long and reckless war.

Amy Herdy is coauthor of Betrayal in the Ranks, a 2003 Denver Post investigation into the military, and is now the student media adviser at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Books mentioned in this post

2 Responses to "Bite the Bullet"

    s h a r o n May 24th, 2009 at 6:18 am

    The reviewer, Amy Herdy, has an "interesting" history. I would not have tried to dig a bit deeper into her background had the review not included the fact that she is currently "student media adviser" (whatever that means) at CU Boulder. Being a graduate of CU (Ph.D. Educational-Psychological Studies, 1997), I googled her name. ("google" was not a verb when I was attending CU Boulder.) I could not come up with any hits from sources newer than mid-2008, so I did not dig very deeply, but she has certainly seen her share of controversy over, around, within but not above "racism" issues--primarily those which embroil Asian Americans on that campus.

    In any case, I find the review somewhat inscrutable. What, for instance, does Herdy mean by her comment that she "disagrees with [the book author's] definitions of sexual assault"? Actually, that's a pretty good question, isn't it? It could, for example, mean forcible rape (I know, that's redundant); or some could say an "inappropriate" advance is a form of sexual assault. (What really makes the sexual assault issue droll are those very few and isolated examples of reports/stories from men who have experienced "rape"--by women. But I digress...)

    I have tried to understand the phenomenon of male testosterone syndrome (I made that up) for years. Now, I'm really old, so this is not a particularly searing issue for me, but rather an intellectual puzzle of sorts. I have been all around this issue and just cannot come up with enough certitude to put something out there that would serve as a credible theory or even rational analysis. I just know that the issue exists. There is plenty of evidence from enormously wide and varying sources that males, especially in the age range of 12 to about 55, have very strong sexual urges. However, there is apparently a parallel need to become sufficiently aroused to complete the act and satisfy the urge. Thus, the porn industry. I do not believe a parallel urgency for sex or its supporting need for arousal exists in females in anywhere near the strength it does in males. (I'm of course not saying the need for sex does not exist in females--only that there seems little evidence that women need to look at sexy photos/videos to become aroused, as do men, or that being in the presence of a hunky man does more than make women act coyly available. I'm also not saying that male rape by females is non-existent.)

    I do understand that putting males and females of the age range mentioned above together in just about any setting is going to be problematic and the conundrum of often overwhelming urges of males must be constrained in order to protect females from unwanted advances. I do not have a ready answer; but what I do have is a near-conviction that the strong sexual urges of males is as old as the species homo sapiens sapiens. Males are driven through these urges to copulate with as many females as possible (apparently to father as many offspring as possible); and of course, females, once impregnated, are out of the running for at least several months, while males can (theoretically) impregnate a female every 45 minutes or so.

    There is considerable scientific evidence (notwithstanding denial by many) that the population of the planet is nearing or has already reached the level beyond which the planet and its resources as we know them can support. Yet, this has no apparent effect on male testosterone levels. This is the conundrum for me. So many aspects of science and the study of our planet make perfect sense to me; this phenomenon does not.

    So, I leave a few issues hanging here, but to read of this book and the problems women soldiers have in fending off advances (or worse) from their male counterparts is an important one. It is clear why Herdy and the author feel there is something not quite right/fair about females having to cloister themselves (either in civilian or military settings) so that men are not aroused by seeing them alone and "unprotected", which arousal by soldiers during off-duty times is apparently uncontrollable.

    s h a r o n May 24th, 2009 at 6:41 am

    Coincidentally, an article from Associated Press appears this morning (5/24) in the New York Times entitled, "UK to Review Combat Ban for Female Troops".

    I quote:

    "Female soldiers are currently banned from close combat. A review in 2002 ruled it would be too difficult to integrate women into male units."

    Now, what do you suppose does that second sentence means? Check it out...

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