Between Myth and Memoir: American Female Soldiers’ Writings of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars


women’s writing,  female soldiers, Iraq, Afghanistan, war memoirs

The image of American female soldiers is often positioned somewhere between traditional myths of femininity/masculinity and the reality of soldiers’ experiences as detailed in their memoirs. The examples cited here go beyond that of a woman writing down her war story for posterity’s sake or using her war experience as inspiration for a fictionalized text. When it comes to women’s war writings of the “Long War,” they have evolved to include a variety of sub-genres, ranging from myths put forward by mainstream media such as CNN and Fox News; first-person memoirs that are presented “as told to by” or “with” or listing the woman as the copyright holder, implying that these narratives have been touched-up by ghost writers; journalistic recreations of soldiers’ stories based on interviews and archival research executed by female journalists; and fictional works that represent American female soldiers written by women writers. Women’s war writing of the twenty-first century displays a range of experiences when it comes to the realities of being a female soldier in the United States military. 

L’image des femmes soldats américaines se situe souvent quelque part entre les mythes traditionnels de féminité/masculinité et la réalité des expériences des soldats telles qu’elles sont détaillées dans leurs mémoires. Les exemples cités ici vont au-delà de l’histoire d’une femme qui écrit son récit de guerre pour la postérité ou qui s’inspire de son expérience de guerre pour rédiger un texte fictif. Les écrits de guerre des femmes de la « guerre longue » ont évolué pour inclure une variété de sous-genres, allant des mythes mis en avant par les médias tels que CNN et Fox News, aux mémoires à la première personne présentés « tels que racontés par » ou « avec » la femme en tant que détentrice des droits d’auteur, ce qui implique que ces récits ont été retouchés par des prête-plumes, en passant par des reconstitutions journalistiques d’histoires de soldats basées sur des interviews et des recherches d’archives effectuées par des femmes journalistes, et puis des œuvres de fiction représentant des femmes soldats américaines écrites par des femmes écrivains. Les écrits de guerre des femmes du XXIe siècle témoignent d’une large gamme d’expériences concernant les réalités de la vie d’une femme soldat dans l’armée américaine.



Women’s writing about war is not new to the twenty-first century. Actually, since there has been war in America, there has been women’s war writings: Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John Adams, a member of the Continental Congress, on the eve of the declaration of the Revolutionary War in 1776. She urges him to “remember the ladies”: 

I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation (“Abigail Adams urges husband to ‘remember the ladies’”).

Here, Abigail Adams’ war writing is not about her actions or observations made during the war, but rather her letter gives advice about how the negotiation of independence should be extended to include that of the American women. Her words will echo in the 1848 “Declaration of Sentiments”, a document mainly authored by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and signed by both men (32) and women (68) that calls for women’s right to vote. American women would wind up waiting until 1920 for federal suffrage in the United States. In this same way, American women would also have to wait until well after the start of the twenty-first century to have equal access to the right to engage militarily in direct combat. This new access has led to a corpus of works about and by female soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

This analysis of the representation of female American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan continues work originating in a previously published article, “Laisser une trace : les écrits des femmes soldats américains en Irak comme lieu de mémoire”(Wells 291-311). The conclusions of this first study were that the number one killer of these female soldiers is their American male counterparts and that in face of this embarrassing problem, the women’s writings constitute a memorial to their sacrifice. Building upon some of the same sources discussed in this previous article and taking into account additional materials that have been published since that time, this case will take into account the representation of these women from a variety of media sources, demonstrating how the image of American female soldiers is often positioned somewhere between traditional myths of femininity/masculinity and the reality of soldiers’ experiences as detailed in their memoirs. The examples cited below go beyond that of a woman writing down her war story for posterity’s sake or using her war experience as inspiration for a fictionalized text. When it comes to women’s war writings of the “Long War,” they have evolved to include a variety of sub-genres, ranging from myths put forward by mainstream media such as CNN and Fox News; first-person memoirs that are presented “as told to by” or “with” or listing the woman as the copyright holder, implying that these narratives have been touched-up by ghost writers; journalistic recreations of soldiers’ stories based on interviews and archival research executed by female journalists; and fictional works that represent American female soldiers written by women writers. While the majority of sources treat women soldiers deployed to Iraq, given the American presence in Afghanistan, it is important to consider the role of the women in battle there too. In order to explore what women’s war writing on Iraq and Afghanistan has to reveal about the conditions of American female soldiers in combat, we will first look at the historical context of the Desert Wars and the United States Military’s evolving approach to women warriors. Then, we will take up two examples that represent the myth making of American female soldiers. Finally, we will turn back to the more literary and journalist examples of women’s war writing to identify the narrative strategies employed when it comes to relating the narratives of female soldiers. As this corpus demonstrates, women’s war writing of the twenty-first century displays a range of experiences when it comes to the realities of being a female soldier in the United States military. 

I. Historical Context

The shifting roles open to American women at war have had an influence on these women’s war stories, and the fact that the United States has undertaken several combats within the last three decades has increased women’s exposure to combat, even if women represent only roughly 15% of Armed Forces (Lemmon 32). More precisely, the United States engaged in Operation Desert Shield from August 1990 to January 1991, and Operation Desert Storm for little over a month in early 1991, January-February. These battles are known as the Gulf War. Following these actions, there was Operation Desert Fox in 1998. The next conflict, Operation Iraqi Freedom, endured from 2003 until 2011, but the United States redeployed in 2014 with the eruption of insurgence from ISIL/ISIS/al daesh in Operation Inherent Resolve. While simultaneously at war in Iraq, the United States also initiated Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, a war, which like the other, is still on-going. It is perhaps this notion of unceasing war which has led to the use of the term “The Long War”: while it has never been official, the term “The Long War” dates from a 2006 Department of Defense senior leaders conference at which CENTCOM head General John Abizaid titled a briefing “The Long War.” There seems to have been a coordinated effort on the part of the military and politicians to get this term out in the media. According to Abizaid, the concept of the “Long War” refers to “the battle against Sunni-Islamic extremism, Iranian hegemony, the other threats to stability, and the need to protect the global economy in the Middle East” (Michaels 39). General Peter Pace has also evoked the fact that terrorist campaigns last “10, 20, 30 years, and therefore there is no reason to believe that these terrorists would have a time span in their minds of anything less” (Michaels 39). Fortunately, now, in this first year of a new decade, a peace deal was signed in Doha, Qatar, between the Taliban and the United States, establishing the withdrawal within fourteen months of United States troops if the Taliban honors its commitments, notably keeping Afghanistan free from terrorist bases (Michaels 39).

Bearing in mind this sequence of military operations, it is important to note that the ensemble of stories we read and the media representations we receive are framed by two legislative texts: the 1994 “Combat Ban”, or the “Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule” and its 2013 retraction. In the first memo from the Secretary of Defense, Les Aspen, under President Bill Clinton, he specifically states a rule about women in direct combat and a definition of what is direct combat:

Rule. Service members are eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground, as defined below. 

Definition. Direct ground combat is engaging an enemy on the ground with individual or crew served weapons, while being exposed to hostile fire and to a high probability of direct physical contact with the hostile force’s personnel. 

The Services will use this guidance to expand opportunities for women. No units or positions previously open to women will be closed under these instructions (Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule).

While the memo states “this guidance” is “to expand opportunities for women,” it is most often cited by the women themselves as blocking them for the positions they wish to pursue and impeding the ground forces in Iraq and in Afghanistan from obtaining critical information from females encountered in the clearing of insurgents’ compounds. In Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield (2015), Gayle Lemmon also cites two other arguments used to block women from direct combat: “would a woman be able to carry a large man off the battlefield under fire?” (Lemmon 68) and “their periods would attract bears out in the wild” (Lemmon 70).

Despite the ingrained military belief that it was necessary to keep women out of direct combat, the reality on the ground is that women were already in the combat zone executing “support” services. Lemmon cites the Marine Corps’ “Lioness Program,” dating from 2003 and 2004, in which an 

 […] ad hoc group of twenty female soldiers and female Marines—most of them drivers or mechanics certified on the .50-caliber machine gun—to join male Marines and Army soldiers on raids, security patrols, and at the increasing number of security checkpoints designed to stop suicide bombers. Much of the Lionesses’ work consisted of searching Iraqi women for hidden weapons and explosives vests, and confirming they were indeed women, not men who had disguised themselves beneath the veil (Lemmon 8).

Women had to execute these searches on women in order to comply with the namus code of Middle Eastern virtues in which men and women must be kept separate: without this intervention on the part of female soldiers, the female population would be left unverified. 

In the fictional work, Be Safe I Love You (2014), Cara Hoffman’s character Laura Clay reminisces about this situation, reflecting the reality of women soldiers’ implications. At one point she explains her job:  “They were going house to house for insurgents. And it was her job to search the women” (Hoffman 121). At another point in the narrative, the character is bitter about the combat support role: “She thought of the slur ‘combat support.’ Because officially women weren’t in combat. They just support. It was the same fucking job as every soldier she served with, but with the added downgrade in title and pay” (Hoffman 121; 275). In other words, the work really being done did not correspond to the military policies, and women soldiers have been suffering financially and morally from this discrepancy. As Lemmon advances in her elaboration of Ashley’s War, she explains how military officials came to realize and then negotiate the need for female soldiers, putting forward Admiral Olson’s conclusion that “in order to achieve success, the missions needed women (Lemmon 9). Olson arrived at this analysis by realizing that:

[…] from a strategic point of view, not having access to Afghan women meant that U.S. soldiers were entirely blind to half the country’s population, and all the information and social influence it held. Even more: whatever may have been hidden in the women’s quarters—everything from enemy combatants to weapons and nuggets of critical intelligence—would remain unfound. This reality signaled a dangerous security gap, for no soldier had ever truly cleared a house when even a single room went unchecked (Lemmon 8).

For these reasons, Admiral Olson was able to organize a trial run of a female unit entitled the Cultural Support Team (CST), that would deploy alongside the exclusive Rangers, either in “direct action”, accompanying them on nightly raids, or “indirect action”, with the Green Berets, to work in Village Stability Operations. Lemon’s Ashley’s War retraces the development of the CST unit, with the material created from over 400 hours of interviews focusing on the individual stories of female soldiers who applied, succeeded, and executed missions. The soldier evoked in the title was a blonde woman, who, newly married, died in action from an IED in 2011. 

            Within the context of the CST unit, female soldiers were clearly working and dying in direct combat, despite the 1994 combat ban. The American military decided to bring coherence to their policies and their official actions, thus undoing the 1994 Rule with the January 2013 Women in the Service Joint Review Directive: “Therefore, the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule excluding women from assignment to units and positions whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground is rescinded effective immediately.” While none of the sources discussed below reflect this 2013 decision, the lifting of this ban will lead to even more combat stories (and perhaps KIA deaths) on the part of women. Now that we are grounded in the war historical context and the official role of women soldiers regarding the American military, we can turn to the myths and memoirs of these soldiers. 

II. Myths of American Female Soldiers: Two Faces to Represent Two Extremes

This analysis investigates how, when a female soldier has a story to tell, her message gets delivered. We are looking into how, as readers, we can rest assured that we are getting the story straight, accessing history through “her” story. The latter proves difficult, as female soldiers turn out to be an anomaly—when attention is directed at them, it may be as a distracting technique from other serious political or military actions, or the media may be manipulating the story to be sure that the narrative fits into the pre-conceived notions or readily available stereotypes for female soldiers. In Soldiers’ Stories: Military Women in Cinema and Television Since World War II, Yvonne Tasker pinpoints the discrepancy between “real world” female soldiers and the entertainingly fictitious ones:

In the wake of the gender integration of the U.S. military, those narratives that did center on military women have tended to figure them as single, childless, and exceptional high achievers rather than ordinary women or mothers. […] At the same time that media interest suggests the military woman provides a compelling image, hers is a story that seems difficult to tell. Indeed the filmmakers Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers comment on their attempt in a documentary on female veterans, Lioness (2009), to escape some of these media clichés: “While the reality of the changing role of female soldiers was playing itself out on the ground in Iraq, here at home the image of the female soldier stagnated in the public imagination, polarized between Jessica Lynch at one extreme and Lynndie England at the other” (Tasker 278). 

Tasker’s citation of McLagan and Sommers leads us to this polarized, mythical representation of female soldiers, as represented by Jessica Lynch and then Lynndie England. As you may recall, Private First Class Jessica Lynch was the petite, young, former beauty queen blonde that was rescued from Iraq. According to Susan Faludi, it was important to represent Lynch as “ultrafeminine,” to be sure that military women stay in their place (Tasker 215). Furthermore, as Rick Bragg points out in the Lynch memoir, “The war needed a hero then, badly. The war’s planners needed a clear win, not just unspecific images of bombs dropping and dust exploding” (Bragg 153). Not only was the rescue mission morale boosting, but Bragg also emphasizes Jessica’s gender as a crucial element that would distinguish her case from that of other missing soldiers: 

Some people would resent it, would despise the fact it took a blonde, green-eyed Miss Congeniality to become the face of war, but it happened—and as the other soldiers in Iraq died with little more than a nice feature in their local newspaper Jessi’s disappearance saturated the mountains and then seeped out and out, into wider America (Bragg 106).

But, most important to our questioning here is how the media took Jessica’s story, which she told in an extremely imprecise fashion due to her amnesia, and with unflattering details regarding the military (her weapon malfunctioned and the convoy got lost and ambushed despite their GPS tools), and transformed it into a heroic narrative, and the woman herself, into a “female Rambo” and a “rape victim” (Jaramillo 213). Deborah Lynn Jaramillo has studied this media representation in her book Ugly War, Pretty PackageHow CNN and Fox News Made the Invasion of Iraq High Concept (2009). Jaramillo points out how the Jessica Lynch story evolved in mainstream media:  

The Project for Excellence in Journalism studied the development of the Jessica Lynch story and found that despite evidence that refuted the Pentagon’s version of events, the mainstream news media were “more likely to latch on to the more sensational version of events’”:

April 1:       CENTCOM informed the press that Lynch had been rescued

April 2:       “wounds” become “gunshot wounds”

April 3:       Lynch called “female Rambo”

April 4:       Conflicting stories about her wounds; introduction of the “Iraqi lawyer who saved her life”

April 7:       Lynch mistreated as a prisoner

April 15:     Question of “what actually happened”

May 15:     “Reconsideration of the Story” (Jaramillo 215)

As this chronology demonstrates, the media worked the facts of Lynch’s rescue into an acceptable war story, following collectively accepted stereotypes of what a female prisoner of war might look like. Given the “high-conceptualization” of the Lynch story, I would like to suggest that as readers, or partakers of media productions, we should seek out the female soldier’s own words. During the rescue operation, when the American soldiers identify themselves and say they are there to protect her and take her home, Lynch simply responds: “I am an American soldier, too” (Bragg 131). Despite the context of rescuing a damsel in distress, Lynch’s response puts herself on the same level as the other soldiers. Furthermore, Lynch consistently spoke out about debunking certain media spins on her story. In the introduction of her memoir, she specifically states: “For twenty years, no one knew my name. Now they want my autograph. But I’m not a hero. If it makes people feel good to say it, then I’m glad. But I’m not. I’m just a survivor. When I think about it, it keeps me awake at night” (Bragg 5). Clearly, Lynch made efforts to tell what really happened to her, even if the media was not interested in her story. 

            On the opposite end of the femininity spectrum, we have the uneducated, unattractive, vulgar, “trailer trash” Lynndie England. England was overly present in the media as photos featuring her with male prisoners in torture scenes from the Abu Ghraib prison went viral on the Internet. The photos show a rather boyish looking soldier who seems to be toying with the prisoners.  Out of context, Lynndie’s behavior seems scandalous. We only get more of her story during her court-martial trial, where her defense relied on the influence exerted on her by Charles Graner, with whom she was having a sexual relationship during her deployment, and who is the father of her child (Brockes np). If we insist on looking at her own words, she explains why she thought what she was doing was acceptable: “To all of us who have been charged, we all agree that we don’t feel like we were doing things that we weren’t suppose to, because we were told to do them. We think everything was justified, because we were instructed to do this and to do that” (“Female GI In Abuse Photos Talks” np). Ultimately, England publicly apologized: “I apologize to coalition forces and all the families, detainees, the families, America and all the soldiers” (izquotes np). Despite this apology, in a “where are they ten years later,” article, England maintains that “Their (Iraqis’) lives are better. They got the better end of the deal, […] They weren’t innocent. They’re trying to kill us, and you want me to apologize to them? It’s like saying sorry to the enemy.” (“Iraq War 10 Years Later: Where Are They Now?” np). Through her representation as a “zero” rather than a “hero”, Lynndie England is the opposite example of Jessica Lynch and Ashley White. In her 2009 article “What happens in war happens,” journalist Emma Brockes reminds readers that England was not the only female soldier present in the photos, but that she was the most notable, as she looked “like a 14-year-old boy who shouldn’t have been there in the first place” (Brockes np). The media and the public fixated on her unfeminine physical appearance to draw moral conclusions regarding her behavior. In addition, Yvonne Tasker identifies how England’s image portrays the “impropriety” of the female soldier:

The use of Lynndie England’s image to stand for the scandal of Abu Ghraib is the most recent instance of a repeated use of the military woman as an over determined sign of impropriety. Whether she is figured as a feminine victim, an amusing conundrum, or a perverse, masculinized bully these images build on a deeply ingrained cultural assumption about military women’s inappropriate presence. They speak to the persistence of that cultural common sense in which the female soldier is a contradiction in terms, in which she is either not really a solider or not really a woman (Tasker 278).

If military practices and cultural norms render “women” incompatible with “soldier,” we may wonder how these female soldiers out on the line negotiate their identities. Turning from media myths, we can now look into how memoirs, those written by the soldiers themselves, or with help from ghostwriters, or investigative journalists, employ shared narrative strategies to tell the women’s war stories.

III. Memoirs: Common Narrative Strategies from Women’s War Writing on Iraq

First and foremost, the soldiers want to get their stories out. In her introduction, Kayla Williams justifies her writing: 

So I wanted to write a book to let people know what it feels like to be a woman soldier in peace and in war. I wanted to capture the terror, the mind-numbing tedium; and the joy and the honor. Not overlooking the suicidal periods; the anorexic impulses; the promiscuity; and the comradeship and the bravery (Williams 15). 

In stark contrast to the media-brushed Lynch story, Williams is determined to share both the good and the bad about her time as a soldier. In the 2007 fictional work, Dear Violet: Letter from a Dessert Grave, protagonist Charlie Day has been killed in Iraq through a “stupid” truck accident. As the military would not accept her wife as next of kin, Charlie is desperate to find someone to transmit her story so that her wife may learn what really happened to her: 

[…] I picked a somewhat neutral party. Someone who tries to write, someone who can handle hard realities. I picked someone who understands my desperation. But my writer is just an implement to me, like a word processor. If I can put something out there that’s interesting enough, lots of people will read it. The law of averages says that it will get into the hands of someone specific. Because everything you read here is really for one person and one person only. She is my wife, and her name is Violet (Sigafoos 3).

Day’s only hope is that her story will be interesting enough to wind up in Violet’s hands. With official channels of communication shut off, the character has to channel a writer to deliver the news of her death to her wife. 

            After these preambles, other narrative strategies emerge relating to the representation of the female soldier body. These include offering up the physical “specs” of the soldier, the presence or absence of makeup, and memorial tattoos. Most of the journalistic memoirs provide measurement data for the soldiers. When the narrative does not give numbers, it uses repeated clichés, as we see in Gayle Tsemach Lemmon’s descriptions that often depict the soldiers’ body type and hair color. Lemmon’s interviews are conducted to help share women’s war stories, but her journalist style insists on visual descriptions. We read that one solider is “Tall, with ice-blue eyes, walnut brown hair, and tattooed arms, she looked like a Harley-Davidson model”(Lemmon 19). She is portrayed as physically attractive, even model-worthy. Another soldier’s appearance is compared to that of Heidi: “With blond hair and blue eyes, everyone thought she looked like Heidi in the popular children’s movie, a fact that made her passion to be out shooting guns all the more surprising to those who didn’t know her” (Lemmon 22). The image here is made to contrast the physical aspect of the woman and her passion for guns. Lemmon also demonstrates how a female soldier can be both biologically female yet also strong: 

Kate had never contemplated another career, though occasionally she wondered why God hadn’t made her taller than five feet, since He knew she was going to be a soldier. Or male, since He knew she wanted to be infantry. Petite and blond she may have been, but Kate’s compact body was ripped with muscles (Lemmon 24).

Each of these descriptions seems to play off of a comparison of stereotypes or myths—pretty, but biker-ish; Heidi-like, but loves guns; short, but muscular. Perhaps with the advancement of intersectional approaches, even when applied to whiteness (Tomlinson, 3-4), forthcoming narratives of female soldiers can shift the focus from “but” to “and”: female, feminine, and a soldier. Finally, Lemmon emphasizes how female bodies are not taken into consideration when it comes to standard military-issue uniforms: 

Lane had the opposite issue as Ashley: her pants were tight in spots where they should have been loose and loose where they needed to be tight. The area around the groin, which featured a nylon-cotton blend zip fly with a handy Velcro closure for quick action, was somewhat puffed out because something the manufacturers had intended to cover was missing. ‘I don’t think they planned on girls wearing these,’ Lane deadpanned (Lemmon 168). 

Perhaps with the 2013 Women in the Service Joint Review Directive, military-issue clothing will take into account all types of soldiers’ bodies, shifting the standard from that of a male body. These physical descriptions lead readers to believe that these women are attractive, all the while possessing the physical capacity to be a soldier. Even if they are blond and short, some of them are “ripped” with muscles. Their attractiveness is part of the myth of the female soldier that makes them seem more acceptable, because they are clearly defined as female. Their appearances strike a great difference with that of Lynndie England, who was described as looking like a boy. 

            Another indicator often cited to determine if the soldiers’ bodies are female or feminine enough is the presence or absence of makeup. In Love My Rifle More than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army, Kayla Williams explains how her wearing mascara became a fetishized fantasy for her fellow soldiers. After she wore mascara to a concert, everyone talked about it: “Everyone noticed. This guy I knew who wasn’t at the concert saw me a few weeks later. ‘Hey, Kayla, I heard you wore mascara to the Bruce Willis concert.’ I could not believe it” (Williams 260). Kirsten Holmstedt’s interview of a soldier named Shannon reveals that wearing makeup helped her feel better at home: “None of her female friends in Iraq wore makeup. They were women; but their femininity was buried beneath dirt and grime from sixteen-hour patrols and infrequent showers. It was refreshing to come home, shower daily with clean water, wear makeup, and get her hair colored” (Holmstedt 186). In this case, the makeup routine seems linked to the re-domestication of the soldier and to also represent creature comforts associated with life “off duty.” In a final example, it is Nadia the interpreter who is relieved to find other women in the combat zone wearing makeup:

During her years overseas she had been around a lot of military females who frankly frightened her. They conveyed the impression that any sign of femininity would be perceived as weakness. But here, in this tiny bathroom, were three incredibly fit, Army-uniformed, down-to-earth gals who could embrace being female and being a soldier in a war zone. She found it refreshing—and inspiring. ‘Oh my God, you wear makeup!’ She burst out. Anne laughed as she put the final touches on an abbreviated makeup regimen (Lemmon 178).

From the male gaze, to the representation of self, to one’s reflection off of another woman—the presence and absence of makeup on soldiers’ faces weighs heavily in their body politics.  

            Like their male counterparts, female soldiers’ bodies are also marked by commemorative tattoos. Holmstedt’s interview with Elaine Snavely reveals that this ceremonial tattooing enables the woman to use her body to render homage to her fallen fellow soldiers: 

Snavely got a tattoo of a phoenix on her right hip as a reminder of Iraq. The phoenix, which represents death and rebirth, is shedding four tears and has three feather plumes. The four tears are for the four wounded in her Humvee. The three plumes are for the survivors (Holmstedt 235). 

In a similar way, the fictional Lauren Clay of Be Safe I Love You has black bands on her arms to remind her of lives lost in Iraq: “Her body, pale and lean and strong, biceps and thighs banded with black tattoos, lay basking against the glacial ice […]”(Hoffman 3). In an ironic fashion, Hoffman has Lauren’s best friend criticize them: unlike her captain, Holly does not recognize the black bands as a commemorative choice: rather, she finds them ugly: 

“I didn’t know you had those tattoos.”
[…] “I got these about a month ago.”
“They’re kinda ugly” (Hoffman 200).

The tattooing practice remains a personal one in this instance—the symbolism is lost on an observer outside of the military sphere. These commemorative tattoos render the female soldiers’ bodies a memorial to their experience. 

            These body politics: physical descriptions, wearing makeup or not, and commemorative tattoos, are just a few examples of the narrative strategies we see in women’s war writing on Iraq—we could also just as easily evoke the desire for the women to return to war; their difficulty to integrate back into civilian life; and, as with the case of Lynndie England, physical violence coming from the female body towards the male body.  While only a selection of citations and examples are evoked here, many of the same strategies are repeated across the corpus of soldiers’ memoirs or journalists’ recreations. 


The corpus of women’s war writing stemming from the United States involvement in the Middle East has resulted in several thematic waves. In earlier war writings, women soldiers seemed plagued by issues of sexual harassment, professional blockades, and life-threatening working conditions, spurred on by difficulties with male colleagues or IEDs. Due to changes in official United States military policies, more recent writings focus on the professional aspects, with the push to normalize women’s roles in direct combat. And now, according to the same WISR memo: “Integration of women into newly opened positions and units will occur as expeditiously as possible, considering good order and judicious use of fiscal resources, but must be completed no later than January 1, 2016.” New opportunities lie ahead for women seeking a military career. 

As these extracts have shown, women’s war writings differentiate themselves from that of men, in part due to the emphasis on femininity in physical appearance as expressed by body type and the use of makeup. Furthermore, these writings address the underlying question as to whether a female soldier can be a hero or not. Jessica Lynch, and many others, has rejected this title, but it is a common question in this corpus of war writing. Gayle Lemmon winds down her narrative about Ashley’s war with this very point: “‘Mrs. White, I brought my daughter today because I wanted her to know what a hero was,’ the woman said, holding the hand of a little girl. ‘And I wanted her to know girls could be heroes, too’” (Lemmon 260). As readers and media observers, we can also hope that there will be more stories of American female soldier heroes to come that will not be based on whether or not a woman wears makeup in combat. We are ready to hear a woman’s military history, her story, without relying on myths or stereotypes. 


Primary Sources, Memoirs:

Bragg, Rick. I Am A Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.

Williams, Kayla and Michael E. Staub. Love My Rifle More than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Primary Sources, Journalistic Reports:

Holmstedt, Kirsten. Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq. Philadelphia: Stackpole Books, 2007. 

—. The Girls Comes Marching Home: Stories of Women Warriors Returning from the War in Iraq. Philadelphia: Stackpole Books, 2009. 

Lemmon, Gayle Tsemach. Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield. New York: Harper, 2015. 

Primary Sources, Literary Works:

Hoffman, Cara. Be Safe I Love You. London: Virago, 2014. 

Sigafoos, N. Dear Violet: letter from a desert grave. Olympia: Sigafoos & Witcher Publishing, 2007.

Primary Sources, Government and Historic Documents:

“Declaration of Sentiments,”

Secondary Sources:

Brockes, Emma. “What happens in war happens.” The Guardian, 3 January 2009.

Editors, “Abigail Adams Urges Husband to ‘Remember the Ladies.’”, A&E Television Networks, 2009,

“Female GI In Abuse Photos Talks,” CBS News, 12 May 2004. Accessed November 2015.

Jaramillo, Deborah Lynn. Ugly War, Pretty PackageHow CNN and Fox News Made the Invasion of Iraq High Concept. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

Mashal, Mujib. “Taliban and U.S. Strike Deal to Withdraw American Troops From Afghanistan.” The New York Times, 29 February  2020.

Michaels, Jeffrey. The Discourse Trap and the US Military: From the War on Terror to the Surge.  New York: Palgrave, 2013.  

Tasker, Yvonne. Soldiers’ Stories: Military Women in Cinema and Television Since World War II. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. 

Tomlinson, Barbara. Undermining Intersectionalty: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019. 

Wells, Amy D. “Laisser une trace : les écrits des femmes soldats américains en Irak comme lieu de mémoire,” Traces, Empreintes, Monuments: Quels lieux pour quelles mémoires de 1989 à nos jours. Limoges: PULIM, 2014. 


Amy D. Wells is Associate Professor of English in the Applied Foreign Languages Department at the Université de Caen Normandie where she teaches American Studies and Business English. Her research interests include the place women create for themselves in American society, whether through literature or political protest. In 2019, she published the book Liberté Francophonie Sexualité : Cinq écrivaines américaines en Normandie dans l’entre-deux-guerres.