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Ashley's War by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield - Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

If I were rating the awesomeness of Ashley White and her comrades-in-arms, this book would get 5 stars. But what I’m rating is Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s work.

This book follows a team of female soldiers who are trained to accompany the (at the time) all-male Special Forces on missions in Afghanistan as “Cultural Support Teams,” to search and question women and children, which men cannot do without offering grave insult. The name of the team may sound fluffy but their work is anything but: they’re jumping out of helicopters in the dead of night, trekking miles in full gear and sometimes coming under fire in raids intended to capture insurgents. And because at the time this book is set, in 2011, combat positions were still officially closed to women, those who signed up were the best, brightest, and most eager for combat of all the women in the U.S. military. They are a tough and impressive bunch, to say the least, and 1st Lt. Ashley White especially so.

And this is a readable and compelling story, moving quickly and with lots of dialogue; I read most of it in one day. Oddly, more than half of the story follows the selection and training process, before the women even deploy (even though their training is abbreviated compared to the standard Special Forces training), but even so, after a first chapter that describes the high-level creation of the program in perhaps unnecessary detail, it makes for a gripping read. And it’s great to see the camaraderie that quickly develops among the women, the same sort of bonds that famously exist between men who fight together. Notably in a book about an unpopular war, the policy and morality of the war itself are never mentioned, but perhaps that's true to the soldiers' worldview.

Nevertheless, this isn’t the best book it could have been. Aside from Ashley, it struggles to distinguish the women from one another. It gives many backstories early on, before the women even meet; some are later relevant to the narrative and some aren’t. Although every one of these women is amazing and incredible compared to the average person, they’re quite similar to one another: they come from military families and families that promote independence and responsibility from a young age; they’re athletic and competitive and driven as girls to prove that they’re as tough and strong as the boys; they’re tough and intense and seeking action, and thrilled to join the CSTs. And while I appreciate, ideologically, that Lemmon is focused on their strengths and careers – it’s mentioned in passing that a couple of them are mothers, or on the verge of divorce, and then it never comes up again; in general only men get this treatment in literature, while women are defined by their personal lives no matter their professional accomplishments – the author doesn’t quite seem to grasp that characters must be distinguished from one another in some way. When hearkening back to someone profiled previously, Lemmon tends to give anodyne reminders such as “Sarah, the Guard soldier and track star from Nevada,” which doesn’t actually stand out at all in this group – I don’t remember which state, sport, and branch of the military goes with which character. It’s no surprise to me that, after Ashley, it’s the Afghan-American interpreter, Nadia, who is mentioned most often by readers: not because Nadia gets more page time than Ashley’s sisters-in-arms, but because she’s far different from the rest and therefore more memorable.

The other major issue is attribution. While the book contains a lot of dialogue and accounts of people’s thoughts and feelings, the author never tells us how she collected her information. Was she present for the training (perhaps explaining why the book spends so much time on it)? If so, bringing in a journalist at the program’s inception would tell us quite a bit about the military’s view of it. When she writes from the point-of-view of a soldier who didn’t make it, did she ever meet that person or is she extrapolating from what others remember her telling them? 

Whether the author ever met Ashley is a big deal. I assumed throughout that she had, given how much she writes about Ashley's inner life, but her acknowledgments to Ashley's family make it sound as if she didn't.

(show spoiler)

Unfortunately, not only is the author never clear about this, but there are no endnotes to reference her sources for facts. This leaves me wondering just how careful the background research was. At one point, amusingly, she asserts that the sewage pond behind Ashley’s camp is “roughly the size of Lake Michigan”; while that mistake is obvious (if true, the pond would occupy nearly 10% of Afghanistan’s land area), it made me wonder if there were other errors less evident to a civilian reader.

And finally, the story ends abruptly; given that a few years passed between the end of the soldiers’ deployment and its publication, it would have been nice to know what these women did next. Maybe one of them will write her own account in the years to come. Overall, I enjoyed the soldiers’ stories and expect they will be inspirational for many, but doubt I would read another book from Lemmon.