NATO Forces

CrossFit, Cheerleaders, And Hard Candy

Ashley’s War is written for the Team America crowd that adores Spec Ops. Still not a bad book.

I tried to avoid Ashley’s War, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s book  about Lt. Ashley White, who died in Afghanistan supporting special operations as part of a Cultural Support Teams (CST). Nothing against Lemmon or the CSTs, I’m just trying to put some mental distance between myself and Afghanistan based literature. I’ve finished a couple of other books about the latest Afghan war, and I haven’t reviewed them on the blog for that same reason. They sat on my reading pile for…months…before I slogged through them.

So I tried to avoid Lemmon’s book, but succumbed to the media hype and read it anyway. I didn’t think I could handle another account of the war gone wrong, told with unflinching skepticism and a journalist’s zeal for the truth unvarnished. Lucky me: it’s not that kind of book. From cover to cover it’s a flag draped tale of empowered patriotism, a monochromatic ode to Team America’s special ops gender experiment in the graveyard of introspection.

I’ve never fallen into a vat of red white and blue cotton candy and had to eat my way out, but having read Ashley’s War, I feel like I’ve come close. It avoids controversy with rigor, relentless in its pursuit of unexamined heroism. It’s an unabashed hagiography worthy of Beck, Eastwood, or Palin, laden with the mandatory trappings of the modern American war story: country, camaraderie, and CrossFit.

If you’re looking for the heartwarming tale of brave women with chips on their shoulders and WODs under their belts who helped breach the sanctuary of Afghan dwellings in the name of the homeland, get this book. Read it to your daughters as a chronicle of the last days of gender limitations in the US military, then tuck them into their “Murph” blanket as they dream of Ranger School and handing out candy to third world urchins.

COIN Needs Women

The Cultural Support Teams were the 2010 brainchild of Adm. Eric Olson, at the time the commander of United States Special Operation Command (SOCOM). Nearly a decade after invading Afghanistan, Olson and the commander for all NATO and American forces in the country, General Stanley McChrystal, realized that there were these other Afghans running around. They called them “women,” and thanks to a backward culture that didn’t like armed foreigners invading their homes in the middle of the night, the Afghans tried to keep their women and children away from the angry men with guns and dogs.

Probably thanks to a bang up Power Point presentation put together by a Human Terrain Team (HTT) that copied it from a RAND cultural study, Olson and McChrystal knew that these creatures called “women” were somehow central to Afghan culture. And if you could keep them and their kids from screaming by handing them candy, you might learn if they were carrying bombs or if they would dime out Ahmad the IED maker. The only way that was going to happen short of sending Jolly Ranchers over compound walls with a grenade launcher was to have an American woman do the launching, but by hand.

Other attempts to reach Afghan women had been made. The Marines were the first to field ad hoc FETs in Farah, using them on patrols to talk to women and children when the menfolk were doing the important combat work. They were also useful when those patrols were ‘collecting atmospherics,’ which are big words that mean ‘asking people questions.’ Since ‘asking questions’ sounds super civilian-y, the military did ‘atmospherics,’ and now thanks to the FETs, they could ask questions of the women, too.

In the Army, the FETs also played a key role in a little-known exchange program designed to teach Afghan kids about other cultures. One of the FETs in Kunar pioneered these efforts, teaching the children all about Mexico, China, Australia and native Americans during ‘cultural awareness shuras’. There were games, there were arts and crafts, and to honor the American Indian, there were duffel bag rides.

SOCOM: The ‘S’ Stands For ‘Special’

The FETs made it possible to talk to Afghan women, but since special operators are special, SOCOM needed their own teams. Those teams would do the same things FETs did, but since they’d be special, they’d be better. Volunteers from all branches, not just special operations, faced a weeklong selection process at Ft. Bragg, and if selected, completed six more weeks of intensive training.

Some would support Village Stability Operations (VSO), which would mean a more “hearts and minds” approach. The Green Berets and Navy SEALs that supported VSOs needed female soldiers to help them reach the women in the communities where they worked, a role usually filled by Civil Affairs (CA) units. Since Civil Affairs needed to be able to do actual CA stuff, more women were needed. Those teams had to be ready to do anything, from searching Afghan women to gathering information that could guide counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.

“We are not at war to pass out blankets and hugs.” — Ranger instructor
The rest (like Lt. White and Amber), would support the Rangers. Rangers tend to define “hearts and minds” as “two in the chest, one in the head.” Which meant what they’d be doing was a little different, mainly dealing with the women and kids during a raid. CSTs that worked with the Rangers weren’t there to win hearts and minds. They were there to make sure that raids went well.

From the book:

“I am Amber,” she told the frightened group, looking the women directly in the eyes as Jimmie translated. “I’m an American soldier, and we are here to help keep you and your children safe. We will make sure that none of the soldiers come near here.” Slowly she put on her blue nitrile gloves, and softened her tone. “I am going to start by searching you—this just helps us all to stay safe.”
 Then she removed her helmet to make herself look less scary, and make it clear she was a woman, too. One of the children immediately stopped crying, and Amber draped a teal-colored cotton scarf over what she now called her “combat braids”: two long, blond plaits of hair that extended from just above her ears to her mid-shoulders.
The higher-ups had told the CSTs they should be able to prove quickly and uncontrovertibly that they were female while out on the objective; this would put the Afghan women at ease, which in turn might encourage them to speak more freely and share valuable information.

This is, above all, a book that wants to tell us about people. And it does that well. One of those people is Lt. “Amber Treadmont” (her name was changed to protect her identity), who Lemmon describes as a rarity in the military, an officer who used to be an enlisted soldier. She’s also someone who saw her Dari skills as an asset when dealing with rural Pashtuns, which she explains during a training scenario when questioned about the value of the CSTs.

“I also bring language experience from training at Monterey in Farsi, which is close to Dari, so I can act as an interpreter with Dari-speaking populations without taking any of your interpreter resources.”

Nothing’s going to get you a Pashtun hug faster than the Iranian version of one of the languages said Pashtun does not speak. So unless you’re going to be doing night raids in Kabul, that Dari’s not going to be terribly useful. To Treadmont’s credit, though, she’s being badgered (in a training scenario) by someone role playing her future team leader.

But Can You WOD?

Because she’s a woman, Treadmont’s being asked to explain her value to a team that’s made up entirely of men. That’s something no man ever has to do, regardless of how special the unit may be. Plus I’m sure her Dari’s much better than mine.

Which brings me back to the “chips on their shoulders” comment from earlier: it’s a flippant way to describe the responses of capable women who are banned from serving in combat arms. Every woman Lemmon profiles in the book has had to deal with a male-dominated military system that doesn’t allow everyone to compete for all military positions, regardless of gender. They volunteered for CST selection because they saw a chance to prove themselves alongside the best of the best.

When Treadmont steps up to take part in this training role play, it’s not just about that classroom. It’s about women rolling the Sisyphean boulder of patriarchy in a training environment which is, in part, intended to test one’s strength of will and performance under pressure. Part of her instructor’s job is to push her to the breaking point, both physically and mentally.

She’s physically more capable than a lot of her male peers and she’d passed the “100 hours of hell” of CST selection week. What was still untested was her mental fortitude. The instructor badgers her about her physical fitness, and she calmly counters each of his points. She mentions CrossFit because ‘murca. She’s doing fine, right up to the point where he calls her a “liability.”

“Listen, women are just built differently than men. It’s a simple fact. You’re just going to be a liability out there.”

Treadmont goes off at that point. She rattles off her physical training (PT) stats, and he counters with apparent disbelief, telling her there’s no way she can do as many pushup as she claims. The train wreck continues until she challenges him to a PT test. The instructor seems unsurprised by what happened, since the “CST was doing exactly what he had expected.”

What Lemmon misses is the weight of the exchange: part of a team that’s going to be raiding Afghan homes at night, sometimes under fire, loses their cool in a classroom setting because some role player pointed out that girls are different than boys. This exchange didn’t happen after hours of simulated interrogation, or at the end of a crushing road march, or after days of sleep deprivation. It’s a well lit room with air conditioning in North Carolina, and she snapped.

Another CST thought Amber should pipe down, but she was wrong: what Amber should have done was point out that her being there was above his head. As her team leader, it’s not up to him to decide whether she should be there or not. That decision’s been made. Someone way above both of them decided that the war needed women like Treadmont, and if her team leader thought she didn’t belong, that’s something he could take up with General McChrystal.

Because what’s happening was bigger than Treadmont. Bigger than her team leader. Bigger than the Rangers who would take her along to deal with Afghan women on their night raids. Being able to see that was part of the burden placed on these women.

Treadmont’s instructor needs her to explain why she belongs, not argue about who can do more pull ups. Much of that is because of her gender, but anytime something new comes to the battlefield, it’s going to take time for people to get used to it. Special operations forces (SOF) are more adaptable than most, which is why the first organized all-female teams were part of special operations units in the first place, but even they have to see why something is useful for themselves.

There’s a reason SF and the Rangers were paired with the CSTs. It’s not because SOF were the only ones in Afghanistan that needed them. It’s because Olson and McChrystal knew that these were the kind of soldiers flexible enough in their thinking to handle working side by side with women in combat.

CSTs, like artillery forward observers (FOs), joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs), and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians, are among a large group of personnel known as ‘combat enablers.’ They’re new, and “new” is tough for anyone to process.

Enablers make it possible for combat to happen, and what Treadmont should have done is continue to drive home how her presence would make it possible for the Rangers to do their job. Both Treadmont and this book fail to convince the reader that the CSTs were anything more than a field experiment in putting women into combat arms. Because when the book ends, we have no idea if the CSTs ended, too.

Not My War Anyway

This book wasn’t written for me. I’ve spent too much time over the last few years digging into programs like the CSTs and their conventional predecessors, the Female Engagement Teams (FETs). I’ve spent too many years in a country that’s littered with ideas tried and discarded. I know just enough about military operations to wonder how a CST ended up on a biplane, and I’m not the audience for this book.

What this book is

This book is about a bunch of women who were told they couldn’t hack it in a man’s world, and proved all the haters wrong. Lt. White is a natural focal point for Lemmon’s narrative – a sweet, caring, competitive-beyond-belief National Guard lieutenant who stunned her instructors more than once with her ability to do anything they could throw at her. If Lemmon’s even half right describing how fit and driven these women are, these are some genuine badasses, gender be damned.

If you’re looking for a book that wrecks you with the recounting of how Ashley’s family (including her fairly new husband) dealt with the loss of their wife, daughter, and sister, run out today. Buy it. Find a quiet place to read that portion of the book and be prepared to tell people your eyes water because of allergies.

If you’ve got a daughter, a sister, a wife that wants to be a soldier someday and thinks she’ll never get a shot at combat arms, read her this book. Repeatedly. Tell her how Uncle Leo Panetta screwed a lot of things up, but that her chance at being any kind of soldier she wants to be wasn’t one of them.

It’s the kind of book that would happen if we put Taylor Swift in a reboot of G.I. Jane, and the opening scene is Swift crushing a rope climb in a CrossFit box right after her cheerleading squad took first place at Nationals. It’s so damn patriotic I swear I could hear “God Bless the USA” playing softly throughout. And since Reese Witherspoon is going to play Lt. White in a movie version, we’ll get to find out what happens when you cross Sweet Home Alabama with Lone Survivor.

What this book is not

What this book is not about is answers, or even that many questions. It’s a book for war cheerleaders, not skeptics. We’re meant to be enthralled with these women who helped Rangers kick in doors, and ignore the war they fought. Lemmon spends no time on that war, or what effect the CSTs had beyond those compound walls.

She only focuses on the role they played in support of Ranger raids. Well, the role half of them played. We never hear about how things went for the CSTs that supported the Green Berets, only those that supported the Rangers.

This book raises more questions than it answers, because it’s not that kind of story. It’s a story that asks us to look at the CSTs and their war, and ignore the rest. Like what impact thes women might have had on the Afghan women they met besides giving their kids candy and helping get their husbands sent to a detention center.

Almost Done

This was going to be about 800 words that ended somewhere back on ‘duffel bag rides’. I ask too much of books and their makers at times, and I set my expectations high for this one. I just couldn’t wrap it up in a snarkerific bow without unpacking how I felt about this book.

Ashley’s War doesn’t have many answers, and given how little has been written about the CSTs and the FETs, that was disappointing. But that’s not the book Lemmon set out to write. She meant to write a book honoring Ashley and the women who served with her, not questioning if America should have been there in the first place.

People like Lt. Ashley White and her CST comrades were among the best of us. No matter what happens with the program in the future, Ashley’s story helps elevate awareness of the fact that women have been on the front lines for a long time now. That she and others like her can handle themselves as well as and often better than men, doing some of the toughest jobs you can do in uniform, means it’s time to make that official. When it comes to women in combat arms, we’ve moved past the “if,” and we’re way overdue on the “when.”


Also published on Medium.