“A woman soldier has to toughen herself up,” writes Kayla Williams, a former US military intelligence officer who has penned an account of what it is like to be a woman serving in Iraq.
“Not just for the enemy, for battle, for death. I mean to toughen herself to spend months awash in a sea of nervy, hyped-up guys.”
Williams’ new book I Love My Rifle More Than You aims to bring a fresh perspective to a war already awash with accounts from serving soldiers and journalists.
In an interview for the BBC News website, Williams said she wanted to flesh out the role of women in a conflict where they have often been cast as either hero or villain.
About 11,100 women now serve in Iraq – or about 8% of the total US force of 138,000. At least 37 have been killed and more than 300 wounded.
Women are barred from direct combat zones but, as Williams makes clear, Iraq’s shifting frontlines push many ordinary female troops into dangerous positions.
‘Crossing the line’
“It very disappointing that women, just like men in the army, are portrayed as being very one-dimensional,” Williams said.
“They are either brave, amazing people who are out fighting for freedom and democracy or they are these awful stupid people or these horrible criminals who are doing awful things.
“But really it is much more nuanced and complex than that.”
Williams’ five years in the US Army included a year of deployment to Iraq during and after the invasion.
Her tale takes her from Kuwait across the Iraqi border to Baghdad, then to Mosul and a remote mountainous outpost on the Syrian border.
Before she leaves the country, she witnesses death up close and sees soldiers cross the line in the handling of prisoners.
‘I mocked him’
Williams says she was asked – as a woman – to help out in an interrogation that took place shortly before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke.
“I assumed it was because I was an Arabic-speaker,” she told the BBC. “And I thought I would maybe be helping with a female prisoner – to be respectful of the culture by having a woman present for that. Unfortunately it was quite the opposite.”
She added: “They removed his clothes and wanted me to be the first thing he would see when they took off his blindfold. I had to mock his prowess and make fun of him – to try to break his spirit.
“I was very shocked that that was what was supposed to happen and I was very uncomfortable with the situation. When they began flicking lit cigarettes at him, I knew that a line had really been crossed.
“As soon as it was over I told the person I would never do it again.
“I was struggling morally with whether I should take it forward and make a complaint, but I was lucky in that the army on its own discovered that there was a problem and action was taken.”
Williams argues that the high-stress environment of Iraq makes people want to do anything they can to get intelligence, even if inappropriate.
And the same testosterone-filled atmosphere of the combat zone is also a challenging environment for a woman, she says.
‘A piece of meat’
Williams describes what it is like to be respected for her skills, but treated variously as a soldier, a sister, a mother, a bitch, and a slut.
She also recounts the story of a Palestinian boyfriend and a short, failed marriage during her state-side training.
“It very much depends where you are and what you are doing as to whether you feel like a woman,” she said.
“When I was camped out on this remote mountain, there was a very close bond there, I felt like one of the guys.
“But back in the sprawling mess hall, with people I didn’t know I would walk through and feel like a piece of meat – an object.”
Williams – recently married to a soldier who was seriously injured in Iraq – put the book together with help from a former college tutor who helped shape her letters and e-mails.
This method of writing means the book misses an over-arching view of the war but does make it a very immediate account, tempered by Williams’ own level-headedness.
“We are all people and we all have both good and bad parts to us, we all do brave things and things which we may wish later in life that we had not done,” she said.
“And I think that is true of both men and women, in the army and in the civilian world.”
I Love My Rifle More Than You is out now in the US, published by WW Norton, and is set to be released in Europe in January.