Reviewed by Amy Herdy
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