When I heard that Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s new book, Ashley’s War, was already due to be a film, and that Reese Witherspoon had won a bidding war for the rights to produce it, I was not surprised. The astounding popularity of “girl power” books, films, and TV shows like today’s Hunger Games and Divergent, whose heroines are only slightly more believable than Lara Croft or Buffy the Vampire Slayer before them, reflects an ongoing craving for powerful women icons and role models. Women (and men) under 30 grew up on this stuff; so to this generation, and those who come next, the debate over women in combat that Ashely’s War will stoke may seem absurd. Of course women can kick ass like that. Duh.
The difference is that Ashley’s War is not fiction. Its subjects, Army Lieutenant Ashley White and her elite band of sisters, who were rushed through an abbreviated Army Ranger course and sent to Afghanistan to support Special Operations Forces teams on night raids against the Taliban, are very real, and simply amazing. These hand-picked soldiers, known as “cultural support teams” (CST), lay to rest any doubts about whether women are physically or mentally tough enough to endure combat: few women or men are capable of making it through the training they survived. And the fact is, we need them in the fight.
In places like Afghanistan and Iraq, for cultural reasons, male soldiers are allowed little to no interaction with local women and are thus blind to the perspectives of half the population. As Lemmon relates in detailed and sometimes harrowing accounts of the patrols and raids the CSTs supported, understanding what is happening with the other half is dangerous and sensitive work, but is also critical to the mission. Special Operations Admirals Eric Olsen and William McRaven both get that, which is why they called for the program to be set up.
The CSTs put up with annoying little problems like ill-fitting and uncomfortable uniforms, specifically designed for male bodies: the women were like Ginger Rogers who, as Bob Thaves famously noted, did all the same dance moves as Fred Astaire, but backwards and in high heels. Even worse was the fact that they were sent to execute a mission with male team members who had been much better trained to defend themselves. Although the women’s physical training was intense, the other combat-oriented portions of that first all-Army CST training had apparently been cut from their program, perhaps due to the bizarre notion that one can “support” a combat mission without really being part of a combat mission.
LT Amber Treadmont would receive this part of her training on the job, in the middle of a firefight where, remarkably keeping her wits about her, she managed to follow the tactical moves of her better-trained and equipped male colleagues as they sprang into action in response to an ambush. It is appalling that the CSTs were asked to conduct such missions without the tactical training that would have prepared them to defend themselves. Inadequate training made them, by design, a “burden,” since they needed to be defended when the team was attacked. Such scenarios artificially reinforce arguments about how women in combat will undermine “unit cohesion.”
Despite these political issues, which seep through the storyline of Ashley’s War, Lemmon remains artfully focused on the human side of her story. Through meticulous research and hours of interviews, she gets inside the heads and hearts of these soldiers and deftly captures what it was like for the pioneering women to go through grueling training together and then deploy, as individuals, across Afghanistan.
Lemmon asked me to review the book because she thought that having been the first woman to pilot the tactical C-130 transport aircraft in the Air Force, I could empathize with the personal experiences of these women as they faced various political and cultural barriers in the military. I was skeptical. I graduated from pilot training in a peacetime Air Force 25 years ago. Ground combat in today’s wars is something radically different. And their physical training was intense; I cannot pretend that I would have made it through that. But as I read on I found that, just as Lemmon had predicted, I could not help but remember.
The emotional experience of breaking new ground in a highly politicized all-male environment was very familiar: wanting to be accepted, but knowing that it mattered less than getting the job done; fears of failing and “ruining it for everyone” because you know that everything you do will be considered what “every woman” does—or can or cannot do. And that constant battle with the pesky inner voice telling you that you’re never going to make it because women aren’t supposed to be able to do this or to even want to do this.
As all-American girls and boys, we grow up being told we can do anything we set our minds to, but then eventually some girls are told: “no, actually, you can’t because you are a girl.” This is a really weird thing. We start to hear such messages over and over, and maybe start to wonder if we are freaks of nature for wanting to do it anyway.
I am sensitive to the risk of projecting my own experience from 25 years ago onto this generation. Yet, I was still surprised to find that, despite how far we have come, those messages still linger. Fortunately, for Ashley and her team, the voices seemed more like annoying background noise, repeatedly beaten back with humor and extraordinary physical performance. And for those who come next, those little voices will be more like groovy outdated mood music, more easily dismissed, because Ashley White and her band of sisters have made it clear that real women, not just fictitious movie characters, can do this. They are today’s real-life heroes. And, yes, we need to keep them in the fight.
Janine Davidson is a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Air Force C-130 and C-17 pilot.
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the women soldiers as Army Rangers. The Army Rangers are a specific group and, though the women soldiers went through similar training, they were not designated Rangers by the U.S. military.