Guest post by Daniel Burton
Ashley’s War by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
At some point while reading Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, I started to read faster, flipping pages and nearly skimming. It must have been shortly after I realized that Ashley–the title character, but by no means the only female soldier documented in Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s book–was going to go to Afghanistan to serve on the front lines with special forces and wasn’t going to tell her parents any more than that she would be an “enabler.” They thought she was doing humanitarian work; Ashley was actually participating in raids with U.S. Army Rangers to capture insurgents in the dark of night.
As the father of three daughters, it scared the living daylights out of me. If I wasn’t gripped by the book before, I was after this. I couldn’t put the book down, and it was closer to sunrise than it was to sunset when I finally closed Ashley’s War on the last page.
Indeed, the entire book is gripping, fascinating reading, and Ashley’s War is a story that should be read by anyone seeking to understand American military policy, as well as the war in Afghanistan. The women Lemmon depicts in the story are admirable, incredible, and inspiring, and they deserve credit for their sacrifices.
Ashley’s War documents the creation of Cultural Support Teams by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, a pilot program to put women on the battlefield to “enable” Green Berets and Army Rangers on sensitive missions in Afghanistan.
Simply put, aspects of Afghan culture prevented U.S. Special Forces—comprised entirely of men—from interacting with Afghan women without offending and alienating the population they were sent to protect. Because women in Afghanistan play an important role in the community and were aware of the movement of insurgents, American soldiers missed out on vital intelligence gathering that could have helped their efforts. In contrast, American women are seen as something of a third gender by Afghans, being neither men (and so prohibited from seeing, communicating, or being seen by Afghan women) nor Afghan female. Cultural Support Team members–women–could build relationships with women in ways that men could not. They could go where American men could not.
In great detail, Lemmon tells the stories of the women who heard about and applied to join the teams, the rigorous physical testing required of the applicants, and the bonding and friendships that grew during the experience. Lemmon is thorough and detailed in her reporting, relying on first-hand interviews with both the women and their families. The women are tremendous, every bit as brave, courageous and strong as the men they were joining on the front line. Lemmon’s writing is easy to read and understand, and she provides a level of background that allows anyone with any level of understanding about military affairs (or none at all) to read and enjoy.
In 2016, the United States moves to full integration of women in the Armed Services. When the history of women in the military is written, the Cultural Support Teams and Ashley’s War may be seen as a critical moment and test in the policy shift.
That said, it was hard for me to read Ashley’s War and not experience some reticence about America’s foreign wars in recent years. Do America’s best and brightest need to be spending their best and formative years fighting, bleeding and dying in a faraway land? Has their sacrifice made America more secure? I believe in the men and women that have gone so far and given so much, and I was moved by the realization that far too few of us recognize or acknowledge the enormous burden that those few individuals have carried as a result of the war.
Review by Daniel Burton