After I finished reading Ashley’s War, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s gripping account of the first group of women to serve alongside U.S. Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan, a particular image from the book stayed with me.
First Lieutenant Ashley White stands wearing her uniform and equipment: Petite and dressed in baggy fatigues with a seemingly outsized rifle and Kevlar vest, she looks more like a turtle with too much shell as opposed to a conventional image of a special operations warrior. She is young, pretty, and smiling radiantly. The image is all the more jarring after you read her story, which ends in her brutal death—blown apart by an improvised explosive devise in Kandahar Province while serving alongside the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment in October 2011.
In Ashley’s War, you might expect Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has written at length on the issue of women’s integration in the military, to lay out a policy solution. Women in the military is a topic that “tends to create a lot of controversy,” as Lemmon recently acknowledged. In Ashley’s War, by channeling her voice as a journalist and telling us the story of one team of women, her book sails above this controversy.
Women make up 15 percent of the active duty U.S. military but are still barred from select combat units. Arguments against full integration include skepticism about women’s physical abilities, and concern about introducing a feminine element to a combat arms culture—often considered a brotherhood—which many consider essential to survival.
Others cast the debate as a civil rights issue in the context of integrating African Americans in the military and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, arguing that women should be judged by their skills and accomplishments, not their gender.
In 2010, when Lemmon’s book begins, women were still officially banned from combat roles following a Pentagon policy written in 1994. Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted that ban in 2013, but allowed military leaders until 2016 to recommend exceptions to the Joint Chief of Staff.
Lemmon recounts how Admiral Eric Olsen, then head of U.S. Special Operations Command, sought an exception to the 1994 ban. Olson argued that because of the Pashtunwali code that requires the protection of women, if U.S. military male teams searched women during raids in Afghanistan, it caused insult and could even provoke revenge. Lemmon explains, “This form of cultural trespass was also in direct opposition to counterinsurgency” and the effort to win hearts and minds.
Admiral William H. McRaven, then head of the Joint Special Operations Command, saw the value of attaching female soldiers to special operations units, and sent a request to Olson at SOCOM to make women soldiers available to join Army Rangers on missions.
Lemmon lauds McRaven’s idea: “It was based on a radical premise from a forward-thinking leader: that women enablers could make Ranger missions more successful.”
McRaven’s request was the beginning of the Cultural Support Teams (CST) program, formed in 2011. Olson established training at Fort Bragg, and divided teams into two groups, “direct action” to accompany Rangers, and “indirect action” to enable the Green Berets’ work building relationships with Afghans during Village Stability Operations.
Ashley White relished CST selection as a chance to “compete with the best women the Army had to offer.” White, an Ohio native who signed up for ROTC and then served as a medic in the North Carolina National Guard, came from a family with a deeply entrenched work ethic honed after school at the family tool shop.
Lane Mason, a 23-year-old Iraq war veteran in the National Guard, first read about the CST program while she was “thinking about her Guard unit, trying to figure out when it would deploy and how she would prepare her two-year-old daughter for her absence.”
The CSTs did not want to be spokespeople for women’s rights. Anne Jeremy was decorated for leading a convoy through 24 hours of heavy arms fire and enemy combat in Afghanistan, and was recruited to be her company’s first female Executive Officer, despite that role being coded only for men.
“Not that Anne had ever thought of herself as being a ‘groundbreaker’ or a feminist,” Lemmon writes. “She preferred to focus on her grit, not her gender, and wanted others to do the same.”
Lemmon sums the apolitical CST attitude with a quote from one team member: “All my life, all I ever wanted was to belong to a group of ass-kickers battling on the front lines.”
Ashley’s War, as Lemmon has said, is about a “band of sisters.” Not all women’s stories are told, just this one team’s. Sexual assault enters the story but isn’t central; post-traumatic stress is not really a theme.
Lemmon’s book is among a subgenre of post-9/11 U.S. military non-fiction, written by women and about women. Three books preceding hers are Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq, an interview-based account of women’s experiences in Iraq; Soldiers Come Marching Home: The Battle of Three Women at Home and at War, which follows three women deploying and returning over 12 years; and Love My Rifle More than You: Young and Female in the US Army, a raw and young-sounding account on deploying in Iraq.
Because military non-fiction, like the military, is more often a man’s trade, Lemmon’s book may find special entree among women who follow foreign affairs but welcome a female cast. The topic and timing make this book relevant for policymakers grappling with integration; perhaps not coincidentally the book hit stands just as the Army cleared the first-ever group of women to begin Ranger School.
Reading Ashley’s War, I couldn’t help but imagine the author flying to Ohio, Georgia, and Afghanistan as the self-appointed custodian of this unknown piece of history. As author of Dressmaker of Khair Khana, also set in Afghanistan, she knows the terrain. Her respect for the military is apparent, perhaps cultivated during her years at the Council on Foreign Relations, which hosts military fellows, and as the wife of a former Naval officer. After two years of assiduous research, in Ashley’s War Lemmon tells the powerful story of an extraordinary group of women, and after knowing them, I was left cheering.
When asked about the future of women in special operations, Lemmon has replied that her book Ashley’s War is “not about policy or politics, but about purpose.”
Still, after reading the story of these women’s sense of purpose, you can’t help but root for policies that let them test their mettle.
Xanthe Ackerman is a journalist with The Fuller Project for International Reporting @XAckerman.