Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kayla Williams: Love My Rifle More Than You

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Recently I've started listening to public radio, which is a huge shift for me. Before, if I listened to talking on the radio, I got kind of overwhelmed- the voices grated on me, and I couldn't understand how people listened to the news or talk radio or even NPR. Of course I listen to baseball on the radio, but that is an entirely different thing (it is!)- there's a story going on, and also a kind of ritual of voices, a cadence.  I only started listening to radio in the last month or two, usually driving between my house and my boyfriend's house- it's about a 45 minute drive- and honestly, I think it's because of twitter. A lot of public radio stations have great twitter feeds that make tweeps feel like they're part of the conversation. Interestingly, this came up on the Melissa Harris-Perry show last week, and though it's tangential, I'm going to post it here in the hopes that you'll start watching the show, or listening to it, which I often do.

Anyway, I heard Kayla Williams on the radio a couple of weeks ago, after the announcement that women would be allowed to serve in more roles in the military, though not combat. Kayla Williams served in Iraq in 2003 as a Arab-language linguist, and right up front lets us know that even though women technically aren't allowed in "combat roles," "technically" is a really big word.
Isn't Congress keeping women out of combat? There are no women in artillery, no women in the infantry. We are not permitted to drive tanks. [Williams often drove her team's Humvee.] We can't be Rangers or Special Forces. There are also teams we rarely go out with because the gear is considered too heavy for the average female to hump on her back.
So people conclude that girls don't do combat zones. That we're somewhere else from where the action is. But that's bullshit. We are Marines. We are Military Police. [See the review of "The Ballad of Abu Ghraib."] We are there as support to the infantry in almost every way you might imagine. We even act in support roles for the Special Forces. We carry weapons- and we use them. We may kick down doors when an Iraqi village gets cleared...
I've long felt ambivalent about women "being allowed" to do combat work, sort of like I've been ambivalent about the struggle for "gays in the military." I guess it's not really that I don't think women or gays should be "allowed" in the military, that's a no-brainer. My question is more, why fight for this? The thing we want to do is to fight and die in ridiculous wars because then we'll be equal? I get it, I understand it's right, but it's not a fight I'm going to fight. But Williams points out that perhaps the fight is not to get women into the military- and this probably holds true for gays, too, even after the repeal of DADT- it's to gain recognition for women in the military. It's a slap in the face to women soldiers that everyone (including me) has the false impression that women somehow bring up the rear in the army, and serve as camp cooks or something, like in an old war movie. Women soldiers deserve recognition: they're already in combat. Without recognizing this, the ordeals that they're going through while in war and when they come home are easy to erase, and this is a very serious problem.

 Williams is an honest woman, and she admits her shortcomings. She's also honest about her fellow soldier's shortcomings, which is one of her shortcomings: she doesn't hold any punches. Her book is eminently readable and eye-opening. We don't get a lot of looks into what really goes on in the army. "The Ballad of Abu Ghraib" was good (both times I read it)- there were a lot of real words from real people there- but there was definitely a sense that it was written by outsiders, academics, journalists.  Williams is the real thing, and it's telling. She experiences the trauma and boredom of war, the annoyances of her partners out there, and she includes the parts she's proud of, like her ability to communicate with the Iraqis, as well of the parts she can't really believe she participated in- long days of throwing rocks at her co-soldiers when they were stuck up on a hill doing pretty much nothing.

As in "The Ballad of Abu Ghraib," I had the same sense of empathy: Williams could not leave. In fact, Williams could have left: she had a serious injury to her foot that required surgery. Twice she had the option to get out of the war: first before she deployed and then once she was in Iraq, she could have been flown to Germany and eventually to the US to have the surgery and probably not return. Instead, she found a doctor "in-country" to do the surgery. So not only was the structure of the army such that "opting out" was not an option, the internal pressure not to flake on Williams' brothers in arms was an added twist to what civilians think of as the ability to make life choices. On the other hand, Williams does describe an incident where she is asked to participate in interrogation techniques that she considers torture.  She is asked to assist, and she goes along with it, partially because she believes that her skills as an Arab linguist will be helpful, and partially because she knows people who have been injured by IEDs in Iraq and thinks maybe there will be intelligence to be gained. She quickly realizes that the prisoner has "limited" intelligence, and realizes that the HUMINT interrogators have quickly crossed a line. She knows about the Geneva Conventions, unlike the MP's at Abu Ghraib, and she feels empathy for the prisoner, who reminds her of her Palestinian ex-boyfriend. She stops participating but is aware that just by standing there, she is useful to the interrogators as a "prop": a blonde woman threatening to the powerless prisoner's masculinity. Williams does not participate in anymore interrogations, and tells the interrogator that what he is doing is illegal. He brushes her off. She walks away, but knows was complicit.
I guess I interpret my own refusal to continue to participate in these interrogations as, in fact, the more unusual response.
However, I did not file a complaint.
I did not go higher.
I did not do anything to stop those interrogations. I did not stand up and say: "This is not okay. It must stop."
I did not do anything like that. All I said was: "I am not going to be a part of it." I did not blow the whistle on anybody.
So how morally culpable am I?
I don't think Williams would let the MPs at Abu Ghraib off the hook as easily as I have: time after time she stands her ground against shitty superiors who put her in danger. She has a clear sense of morals, and knows that the war she is supposed to be fighting is wrong. She knows that the higher-ups are wrong when they make these Rules of Engagement: "If you see a guy on the side of the road on a cell phone, point your weapon at him. And if he won't get off the phone, you can shoot him. He might be calling in your location to somebody else... you are authorized to shoot him." But she doesn't let herself or any of the officers off the hook for engaging in those rules unethically. She keeps her humanity in the most difficult situations. It's a testament to humanity that a soldier like Williams can do this, when the powers like President Bush can put her into an untenable situation. If Bush had a quarter of Williams' humanity, we wouldn't be where we are today. More liberals and knee-jerk antiwar pacifists like me should read books like this so we can back up our theoretical claims with lived experience.