'I try very hard to not let bigotry eat its way into my mind," says Kayla Williams, author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army. "I was talking to a friend of mine, a liberal New Yorker, when I got back from Iraq. I said something about 1200 people getting killed in Iraq, and he said, 'You mean U.S. soldiers, not people.' And I was like, 'Oh my God, you're right!' It kind of shocked me when he pointed that out and I realized my loyalty to the soldiers was so ingrained in my mind. How many thousands of Iraqis have been killed, I don't know -- the number doesn't flash by on CNN every day." On Friday, October 14, Williams will be discussing and signing her war memoir at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla. Williams was a military intelligence sergeant and Arabic linguist with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Unlike Airborne soldiers, who jump out of planes with parachutes, Air Assault soldiers arrive on helicopters. "We could be deployed anywhere in the world within 36 hours," says Williams, who left the Army in June after serving for five years.
The title of Williams's book was inspired by a military marching cadence: "Used to do the beauty queen, now I love my M16! Cindy Lou, Cindy Lou, love my rifle more than you!" Williams feels grateful that she has never had to use her own rifle. "I carried it with me and became very attached to it, but I'm glad I did not have the opportunity to shoot anybody. I've talked to people who have, and it's something you have to live with for the rest of your life."
Many soldiers feel the need to dehumanize their enemy. "Most soldiers in the Army call the Iraqi people things like 'rag-head' or 'towel-head'; they constantly refer to them by anything but their actual names. Which you almost have to do in order to shoot people," says Williams. "I think it's tragic, it's terrible, but it's complicated -- because we're not just fighting a war, we're also supposed to be helping people. If you hate them and think they all should be killed, it's hard to keep that in mind." Williams would argue with fellow soldiers to no avail. When she would state that children are innocent victims, she was often met with a response such as, "No, they're
not -- they're baby terrorists."
"Deep down inside, I don't think that the soldiers really, truly believe that. They were just angry and fed up and being tired, and it's really hard to remain sympathetic to people who are shooting at you. It's a difficult situation to be in, to be constantly on guard with these people who are your enemy while trying to help them rebuild their society."
As with other male-dominated organizations, sexism is pervasive in the military. "I can't give you enough examples!" says Williams. "I've been told regularly that women don't belong in the Army, that they can't handle deployment." She recalls one incident in particular. "A male soldier pulled out his penis and grabbed my hand and tried to put my hand on it. I pulled away and he finally let me go. I mean, I was carrying a gun. It was nerve-racking, but I wasn't afraid for my life." Williams struggled with what to do. She did not want to ruin the soldier's career, but she also did not want to condone his behavior.
Williams reported the soldier to his commanding officer but did not put anything in writing, choosing to allow the matter to be handled internally. The soldier was moved to another location. Even now, Williams seems to empathize with him. "On one hand, anybody knows better than that. He wasn't an 18-year-old kid; he was a grown man. But on the other hand, I watched another man punching himself in the face and crying. We were under a lot of pressure. I tried to be understanding, but at the same time I think we do have to take responsibility for our own actions."
According to Williams, sexism in the military has an upside. "It goes back and forth between refreshing and disturbing. I was tired of being stared at. I am not a zoo animal. There were other times it gave me a little spring in my step, to feel attractive all the time, to be a rare commodity." Soldiers refer to this as "Queen for a Year." In her book, Williams writes, "That's what we've called American women at war since nurses traveled to Vietnam in the '60s."
"As an intelligent woman, I didn't want to let this go to my head," says Williams. "I can see the temptation in it, to want to abuse the power that can come with [being Queen for a Year]. If you ever talked to a stripper, you'd know that [being a woman] can be powerful and disempowering at the same time." -- Barbarella
Booksigning and discussion: Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army
Friday, October 14
D.G. Wills Books
7461 Girard Avenue
Info: 858-456-1800 or www.dgwillsbooks.com