Love My Rifle More than You: Young & Female in the U.S. Army Kayla Williams

If you weren’t paying attention to the first sentence of Kayla Williams’s Love My Rifle, she repeats the assertion in the next ten paragraphs: being a woman in the U.S. Army is importantly about being the object of male sexual discussion, fantasies, and occasional groping. Rape is a possibility. As a female enlisted soldier, she eventually discovers that she is placed into one of two categories by her male comrades in arms: a slut or a bitch. Read the memoir to find out the difference. Having read many war memoirs and frequent newspaper reports, I was not particularly surprised by her revelations, but I found myself startled by the graphic nature of her experiences, her nuanced reactions, and her rejection of self-pity.

Love My Rifle is first and foremost a war memoir. As a memoir by a young woman, twenty-three years old, it is also in part a coming of age story. Williams is young when she joins the army, but by no means innocent. Her coming of age includes becoming less sexually active in the Army than when she was a teenager in high school and more in control of her mind, emotions, and body. It also includes her increasing awareness of her competence, her desire to learn, her remarkable intelligence, and her sense of personal responsibility.

When she volunteered for the Army in 2000, she had already finished a baccalaureate degree in fewer than four years and had held several desultory jobs. As an enlistee, she was assigned to linguistics training in Arabic at the Monterey Language Institute. Williams was there on 9-11, understanding immediately that her language skills in Arabic would likely put her in harm’s way. In 2003 she went to Iraq, part of a linguistic/intelligence team, an element of the 101St Airborne Division. As an Arabic speaking soldier in intelligence, her role was technically non-combat. Nevertheless, she always carried a rifle, experienced the immediate aftermath of firefights, road-side IED’s, and even explosions in abandoned mine fields. Some of these events could have been avoided by competent leadership.

First in Kuwait and then in Iraq, Williams came to realize that a number soldiers in the U.S. Army were unaware, ignorant, incompetent, or lazy. She didn’t count herself as superior to these people, many of whom were her NCO supervisors. She understood clearly, however, that they sometimes endangered her and her fellow soldiers unnecessarily, and crucially, they jeopardized the success of the “mission.” Williams, seeing first-hand the consequences of bad judgment or ignorance, was not averse to confronting her superiors. She did not keep quiet. She was aware that her critiques did not make her popular; she didn’t think of herself as likable anyway.

In the memoir, she projects a core of ethical authenticity that makes one respect if not like her. When ordered to take part in the interrogation of some prisoners, she at first does what instructed to do: ask the naked Iraqi prisoners questions designed to humiliate them, Abu Ghraib style. After a few uncomfortable attempts on her part, she declares the interrogations to be illegal and refuses to participate in them. It appears that she was one of the few who objected.

Young men go to war. Now, young women go to war, too. War often brings out both the best and worst in soldiers irrespective of gender. While at war in Iraq, Williams admits to disturbing thoughts and behaviors. She had “attitude,” but despite everything her essential decency is apparent. After a year “in country” she appeared to have outgrown much of her youthful rebelliousness, but she remained unafraid to say “no” to power, particularly if, it is stupid or incompetent. I’m not sure that she had come to like herself by the end of her memoir. But I had.   –  Neal Ferguson

Also available by Williams: Plenty of  Time When We Get Home.

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