- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best Defense guest respondent
Let me begin by saying I’ve defended Laura Westley during her past two posts. I overlooked some of her wilder statements and I was sympathetic to her concerns because I thought her theme was authentic and noteworthy.
I read her new book, War Virgin, to see where fact separated from fiction. Well, that’s the hurdle. The reader must accept that Laura’s version of events is accurate in order to accept the book or the posts. Given Westley’s nuanced approach I am willing to do so. Because I have experienced similar conflicts — empathy — in my life it’s easier to accept the veracity of her claims. But if one presumes that she is a phony then you simply won’t accept the book. This review also intends to clarify some of those questions and issues.
I bought the e-book (322 equivalent pages) Friday afternoon and I finished reading less than 28 hours later. If it wasn’t an entertaining and engrossing read, I’m sure I wouldn’t have dug in so deeply and quickly, missing sleep to do so. Overall, it’s an enjoyable, and painful, learning experience. It’s enjoyable because Laura spins a yarn peppered with humor, pathos and redemption. It’s painful because her experience is deeply agonizing.
Westley’s memoir covers early life, high school efforts to get into USMA, her time at USMA — including three concussion events resulting in Traumatic Brain Injury — and military career with the initial assault during Iraqi Freedom as the highlight. Laura also speaks to post military struggles, PTSD, divorce, a suicide attempt, and a deathbed reconciliation with her father — who did not deserve the magnanimous gesture.
“lrglaw1” noted that Laura, like so many people, is a “wounded soul.” This is an extremely apt summation. Time and again, she is seriously damaged by, but survives, experiences that would hobble weaker individuals. Westley describes her father’s horrible physical and mental abuse growing up. He was a man who longed for a son, and stated as much. And while she exceeded her parents in every way, her best was never good enough, even as a high school salutatorian or top performing USMA cadet.
And then there’s her “sparkle.” Westley’s Pentecostal father overzealously defended his daughter’s virginity or “sparkle,” and Laura continued this religiosity at West Point to her detriment. This is the root of much that follows as Westley tried to balance her raging hormones with her “need” to protect her maidenhood. This book is about sex and gender relations. The easily-offended should look elsewhere. While I struggled with some of her decisions, I also tried hard to view things from her perspective. I ultimately realized that very few men would have acted differently than Laura. One obvious example is the cover illustration, taken from a photo of 1LT Westley at a military convoy. I’ve struggled over this picture, deeming it inappropriate for a young officer to display herself in half-dressed fashion. But then I think, how many bare-chested pictures of men — even officers — in similar circumstances have there been? Only our double-standards stand in the way.
As another Best Defense commenter, “Xenophon,” noted, Westley — though she never uses the term — speaks of the “Madonna-whore complex.” The question to contemplate is “who is responsible for this complex?” The person suffering it, or the society that propagates such notions? In society, men and women levy these charges/titles on women, and it is hypocrites who do the most damage. Who hasn’t witnessed a “bro” trying to engage with a young lady, in any setting, only to turn around when dismissed, and call her a whore? Or the chattering class women who speak ill of their friend’s revealing clothing, behind their backs? Too many of the men Westley encounters in the military are sexual opportunists, taking advantage of her naiveté. Even when Laura has all the agency she deserves, one has to wonder WTF is going on with her, mostly married, male peers. One glaring, unbelievable event is a 1st-2nd-3rd base affair with two men somewhere out on Route Irish (or somewhere like it).
For those who deem her a Swift-Boat-esque phony, Westley cops that even she doesn’t know whether she was “in combat or not:” “This left me not knowing how to answer someone whenever I was asked if I saw combat. I don’t know what the fuck I witnessed, but I believe I only survived by sheer luck.”
Laura’s description of her OIF chain of command as simultaneously patronizing, inappropriate, incompetent, and (insanely) micro-managing is also, unfortunately, completely believable. That they also sexually harassed her is plausible. When Westley claims she disobeyed certain dumb orders, I don’t have a hard time trusting or supporting her. With friends/co-workers like these, who needs enemies?
Some TBD posters suggested Westley should have been prevented from joining the military, but it’s clear to me that while she was hampered by her “textbook daddy issues.” that alone wasn’t what caused some of her marginally unhinged behavior. [Note: To those who helpfully prescribed a shrink; she’s had one for a long time, and an emotional support war dog too]. She is a wounded soul, but her time in the military was as much a cause and a result of her problems.
The fact that she overcame many hurdles is actually a testament to her strength. Westley also recognizes that she isn’t perfect — indeed seeking perfection was part of her undoing — but she persists.
War Virgin is a very good read. While it is not error-free, it deserves consideration as an unheralded viewpoint, expressed with candor. For good or ill, as gender integration increases within the military, this perspective will grow in value. Laura…at least one white, male, wounded soul, USMA-grad Colonel has your back. Good luck in your endeavors.
“Hunter” is a RC infantry Colonel and the father of three young children. He’s working hard so they never have just cause to write a book or musical about their upbringing. This review represents his own views and opinions, which are not necessarily those of the Army Reserve or the Department of Defense.
Photo credit: Amazon.com