December 13, 2018


Beyond the Call: Three Women on the Front Lines in Afghanistan. By Eileen Rivers. Da Capo. $27.

     The focus on women in the armed forces tends, in the United States, to be one of combat readiness: even after the first female Army Rangers graduated in 2015, questions continued to be raised about whether standards had been relaxed for them in the name of political correctness, making the women Rangers less fit than men. Strong denials from the military to the contrary, this issue continues to reappear from time to time. Yet women’s roles in combat zones amount to a great deal more than those on both sides of the female-readiness argument in the U.S. tend to realize. Just how much more extensive those roles are, and have been, is the topic of Beyond the Call, whose author, Eileen Rivers, herself served in the armed forces: an Army veteran, she was an Arab linguist in Kuwait following Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s.

     Rivers, now an editor at USA Today, focuses in her book on a Marine sergeant, an Army major and an intelligence officer, all of whom were members of FETs in Afghanistan. A FET is a Female Engagement Team with an unusual and crucial mission: to develop relationships with Muslim women, who are founts of information on their nations’ customs, needs and difficulties, but are culturally forbidden to speak to male soldiers. Never mind the facile notion that they should speak to male soldiers who are there to protect them: the FETs deal with the reality on the ground, not the wished-for social equality that is many years, if not generations, away in a place such as Afghanistan. Rivers’ book follows the three women – Sgt. Sheena Adams, Maj. Maria Rodriguez, and Capt. Johanna Smoke – as they go about their duties, developing relationships with Muslim women in a bid to gather intelligence vital to U.S. success in the country. Adams, Rodriguez and Smoke are on the front lines of attempts to engage hearts and minds and thus weaken the hold of the Taliban on parts of Afghanistan – and they have to fight some dyed-in-the-wool barriers of their own to do so.

     Thus, Beyond the Call is both a story of the little-known but important role of FETs in Afghanistan and of the lengths to which military women have gone – have had to go, according to Rivers – to serve in all the ways of which they are capable. The book actually starts with a short history of women in the U.S. military before the scene shifts to Afghanistan and the story of a woman named Jamila Abbas, who became a women’s-rights activist – a role placing her in great personal danger – after Taliban killers beheaded her husband. The way Abbas interacts with FET members is an important part of the book, which also details the personal struggles of the three women profiled within the U.S. military. Thus, Rivers shows how hard Adams fought her own chain of command to be assigned to Afghanistan – and what happened when, after she was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED), her advancement was blocked because she was not given credit for combat service. Is this a system glitch or systemic discrimination? Clearly the latter, Rivers suggests, and she says Adams is scarcely alone in suffering from it.

     Rodriguez’ circumstances forced her to fight both the provincial government in Afghanistan and her own chain of command. She was supposed to give Afghan policewomen training, but was not allowed, under U.S. military regulations, to leave base without a male escort. There are arguments explaining this – having to do with extra risks in a culture such as Afghanistan’s if women are out and about on their own – but Rivers suggests that the rules are part of a pervasive anti-female orientation in the U.S. military that is changing slowly when it changes at all. As for Smoke, Rivers shows her working with Abbas to register women to vote, contrasting this bid for female empowerment in a repressive society with the difficulties these FET members faced in their own military lives.

     Beyond the Call is as much an advocacy book as a military-history-and-analysis one, and, perhaps as a result, tends to drag: Rivers is not especially skilled at interweaving the two elements of her narrative, and her writing is matter-of-fact and rather unstylish. The underlying story of FET members helping the fight for women’s rights in a country whose entire religious and political system opposes them is a strong one. But what never quite gels is Rivers’ attempt to relate that level of systemic oppression to the comparatively small and certainly less dangerous facing of barriers involved in women’s service in U.S. defense. It is certainly true that the U.S. military has not been an equal-opportunity organization where men and women are concerned, and that the country as a whole continues to face many issues of inequality involving a wide variety of under-appreciated groups. But comparing the structural inefficiencies and slow-to-change policies of the United States with the vicious, violent, religiously based systemic oppression of the patriarchal system in Afghanistan really makes no sense. Adams, Rodriguez and Smoke certainly had to overcome barriers to be able to do the work that, by Rivers’ account, they all did well and with pride. But their difficulties are on an entirely different level from those of Abbas and the other women trapped in a system that, by the standards of the generally open and designedly secular one in the United States, is backward and borderline evil – just the sort of fertile ground in which cancerous growths such as the Taliban flourish and become extremely difficult to root out.

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