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The Iraq war through the eyes of a female soldier

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The voice of the soldier from the war zone is: profane, resolute, caustic, depressed, matter-of-fact, savvy, war-weary, changed in fundamental ways. But the significant difference in this voice from this war in Iraq is: It is a woman talking this time.

Kayla Williams pulls few punches in her powerhouse new memoir, "Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army" (W.W. Norton, 288 pages, $24.95), written with co-author Michael E. Staub. This is an urgent report from today's military battle lines, only some of those battle lines happen to be within the Army's own ranks.

Williams recounts outrageous sexual harassment by male soldiers in Iraq that call into question the Army's ability to provide equitable working conditions for the females who constitute 15 percent of the troops.

There were soldiers who tossed rocks at Williams' breasts as a form of boredom relief (they also tossed rocks at each other's penises). There were soldiers at a distant mountaintop outpost who took up an $87 collection in hopes it will persuade Williams to expose her breasts ("I might remotely have done it for free," she writes. "I would never do it for money. What did these guys think I was? A whore?").

And then there was a soldier who exposed himself to Williams and strongly pulled her to him in hopes of receiving sexual gratification, an incident she declined to report through official circles because of fear of repercussions for her own career.

"Love My Rifle More Than You," which takes its title from sarcastic Army marching cadence, is no feminist screed. It is an affecting account of one young soldier's coming of age, a soldier who is just as hard on herself as she is on others, with details of her own flaws and doubts along with her own abilities as an Arabic-speaking military intelligence specialist in the fabled 101st Airborne Division.

Williams, a new-century kind of working-class hero, came to the military via a circuitous route. This product of a single-parent home was a dedicated punk rocker in her youth, then graduated from Bowling Green State University in Ohio before finding work as a PBS telemarketing manager in Florida. A two-year relationship with a Muslim man from Saudi Arabia introduced her to that culture and to the Arabic language.

Williams enlisted in the Army because she thought it would provide the kind of challenge that had been lacking in her life thus far and because she thought it would improve her career prospects. She gave little thought to the notion that she could end up in a war zone.

The military did provide its advertised challenges, with its discipline and structure, but also challenges that were not advertised. Greater opportunities have indeed opened for females in today's service, but what role to assume proved a never-ending minefield for women.

To be too tough was to invite being labeled "bitch," Williams relates; to be too easy was to invite being labeled "slut."

"A women has to toughen herself up," she writes in her prologue. "Not just for the enemy, for battle, or for death. I mean toughen herself up to spend months awash in a sea of nervy, hyped-up guys who, when they're not thinking of getting killed, are thinking about getting laid. Their eyes on you all the time, your breasts, your ass ...

"Still it's more complicated than that. Because at the same time you soften yourself up. Their eyes, their hunger: Yes, it's shaming -- but they also make you special. I don't like to say it -- it cuts you inside -- but the attention, the admiration, the need: They make you powerful."

"Love My Rifle More Than You" is filled with similar unvarnished insights, hard truths, telling details. Williams recounts the horror of war, its boredom, its courage, its excess, its inhumanity, as witnessed during her year in Iraq. The former sergeant even includes her own regretted participation in the abuse of an Iraqi prisoner, using her femaleness to humiliate and embarrass the naked man before her, an isolated incident but one that reflects the same mind-set as the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.

More intense memoirs of the Iraq war are sure to surface, especially those written by grunts. This war's "Dispatches" or "Jarhead" no doubt will be written. But Williams' "Love My Rifle More Than You" is sure to remain an important work from this conflict, offering a female soldier's view that demands to be heard.

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