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

This book is about the US Army's Cultural Support Teams, women who go out with Rangers and Green Berets on raids to get vital intel from Afghan women and children. Due to Afghan culture, men and women/children don't mix and the Afghani women were too afraid of the American servicemen and wouldn't give up any information. Plus, the servicemen involving themselves in any way with Afghani women was a black mark against the NATO forces within the communities they were trying to protect from the Taliban. CSTs were used as "enablers" to work with Afghani women to get that information and develop social ties with the community. Simply put, Afgani women would only work with American women.

 

However, to work with the Rangers and Green Berets, the women chosen had to be able to withstand the brutal nature (physically, mentally, and emotionally) of those nighttime raids and all that those raids encompass. The book begins with the first ever selection and class of CST wannabes. That part of the book takes up almost half the book; the other half is about their first four months in Afghanistan. The selection and training of these women was intense; however, there was the most women-shaming in this part of the book. The women-shaming came from the author a little and a lot from the women profiled. These women were even shaming other women in the Army/other military branches. One women went so far as to be disgusted at God for making her a girl instead of a boy and keeping her from joining the Rangers officially. Anything feminine was deemed unworthy.

 

The women shaming kept me from connecting with any of these women. I was more invested in how the program came about, how the teams would work, and some of the people working as enablers but not a CST member (such as Nadia and Jimmie, Afghani-Americans working with the Rangers as interpreters). Also, during the selection, the book profiled other women in the CST class but damn if I could keep any of them straight in my head. Not a whole lot of distinction between the women apart from the main Lt, other than the one who was raped during a previous deployment and was still fighting some demons from the trauma. I only remembered her because the author repeated how she was a rape survivor when she got to Afghanistan.

 

And if I read about their love of CrossFit workouts one more time, I would need to start a drinking game. Seriously, it felt like an advertisement in every chapter for CrossFit. The physical aspect of training and working as a CST member took over the mental or emotional side of that training/work and again made anything feminine (such as mental or emotional skills) as secondary or not as worthy as ruck marching for 20 miles. These women actually didn't seem as sharp mentally as would be necessary - maybe more time should have been spent on identifying IEDs/bomb sites and a little less on running miles.

 

The second part of the book, the four months in Afghanistan, was gripping stuff yet I wish more detail was paid to this area of the book. All I got was more CrossFit workouts and the occasional stories of certain raids. The last part of the book, about four very short chapters, dealt with the death of the first CST member (Ashley, hence the title) and the bazillion memorials, services, her funeral - just endless stories of how her little town in Ohio and the military brass celebrated her. Dare I say it, but it was such OVER KILL! It was more about the town/military putting on a recruitment show than about any other CST member or their work back in Afghanistan. Lots of back patting all around.  Piss poor editing and writing to just leave the stories of the other CST members and what they did after their deployment was over to the horrible epilogue which didn't mention the women post-deployment.

 

I think this was an important story to tell, especially as these women (and the classes/CSTs that followed them) opened up the debate about women and combat. I think the writer didn't have the chops to tell that story. I am glad I read this book, I feel more informed about the NATO war in Afghanistan. I don't know if I can recommend this book unless you are into military non-fiction or women's history/studies. I am being generous with 3 stars.