Sunday, November 11, 2007

Veterans Day:
The woman general who took the fall


One Woman's Army: The Commanding General of Abu Ghraib Tells Her Story by General Janis Karpinski with Steven Strasser.

A friend pulled this title out of a remainder bin, skimmed it, and passed it on: "You should read this." She was right.

As the title makes clear, this is Karpinski's side of the story of the torture scandal, for which she was the highest ranking officer to be rebuked. As far as her apologia is concerned, on some subjects, like the complete muddle Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense had made of Army Reserve, she is very persuasive.

At the mobilization station you end up with battalion commanders who don't know their brigade commanders, company commanders who don't know their battalion commanders, and soldiers who don't know each other or their leaders at any level. A soldier who grew up in Montana finds herself deploying with a bunch of guys from Brooklyn. A soldier who speaks no Spanish finds himself assigned to a company from Puerto Rico. If the system looks chaotic, it is. ... Most of the Reserve and National Guard units we sent to the Middle East starting in late 2002 had nothing like [the desirable] level of cohesion.

She is less able to document her central contention about the torture scandal -- though subsequent revelations about the sadistic inclinations of our rulers seem to bear her out:

For the rest of my days I will believe that, at Abu Ghraib , these soldiers were following orders when they humiliated and abused detainees.

But this material is not what I found so interesting about this book. What drew me in, as a Vietnam-era feminist whose life experience made the attractions of the military opaque, is Karpinski's tale of what attracted her to the Army and how she persevered despite discouragement and actual abuse from its male hierarchy.

[By 1977 when] the Army restructured itself into a volunteer force after Vietnam, it was attracting plenty of male recruits who wanted education and training that would carry over into civilian life. But the Army also needed warriors, and there were not so many volunteers for that assignment. That's where the women came in. Our policymakers' plan over the next decade was to steadily expand the ranks of women holding jobs in combat support and combat-service support. As more women were given roles as truck drivers, supply officers, intelligence analysts, and the like, more men would find those jobs closed and be forced to join the warriors. And once you became a professional infantryman, you were much more likely to make the Army your career. There were lots of civilian jobs for truck drivers and electronics technicians trained by the Army -- but not so many for combat fighters.

Karpinski didn't understand how women soldiers were being used to track men into less desirable jobs when she enlisted -- nor does it seem that she would have objected if she had known it. This is a woman who consistently identifies with management, a useful state of mind in a rigid hierarchy. But she's also no dope. Her struggle with her status as a woman in a man's world is interesting.

I was determined to become a soldier's soldier ...But I had to acknowledge something else about myself: I also wanted to remain a woman. ...Some women -- even straight women -- tried to neutralize the men by joining them, cutting their hair and playing down their female characteristics. For my part, I tried to be both an office and a gentlewoman. ... The way to be taken seriously in a man's world is force them to engage your intelligence, not to try to change what you are.

Well maybe. It worked for a long time for Karpinski. She aced paratrooper training. She fought off superior officers with wandering hands. She worked for male officers who respected her -- and male officers who were terribly threatened by her competence. She rose up the ranks -- and ended up learning Arabic and training women in the United Arab Emirates for military service. She was eventually promoted to brigadier general of MPs in the Reserves.

And then, as Bush's Iraq invasion went sour, after all the contortions she put herself through to rise in the institution she loved, she was made the Pentagon's scapegoat for Abu Ghraib. She still believes in the hierarchy she both submitted to and climbed but insists:

you have to look up the chain of command as well as down.

The book is a fascinating cultural period piece and an angle on the war worth more attention from those of us trying to end it.

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