The War Nerd: Getting “Women Warriors” wrong

By Gary Brecher , written on January 19, 2015

From The War Desk


I read a long article called “My Terrifying Night with Afghanistan’s Only Female Warlord” last month. It was utter crap, and so similar to a lot of utter crap I’ve been reading about the women fighters of the Kurdish YPJ militia in Syria that I realized it’s time somebody called foul on the offensive, ignorant crap going around about what the media likes to call “women warriors.” I don’t particularly enjoy the role of progressive scold, and it don’t hardly come natural to me, but somebody’s gotta do it.

What happens, in every case where writers and TV reporters with no background in military reporting try to describe “women warriors” is that they sexualize everything, ignore the real context, and betray a deep misogyny in every word they write or speak on camera. I mean, to the point that it’s surprising, at least to me, because a lot of these people make a big deal about being progressive. I’m kinda shocked, actually, how crude their gender bias is. Nobody seems to be even trying to hide it.

Reporters seem to insist on trying to “humanize,” i.e. feminize and sexualize, their subjects by asking them about boyfriends, marriage, and kids. You can see that sort of tilt in nearly every story about the magnificent fighters of the YPJ, the women’s military force defending Kobane and other Kurdish Syrian cities against Islamic State. YPJ fighters dominate the mixed YPJ/G forces in Rojava (Kurdish North Syria); the overall commander of Kurdish resistance to the IS swine attacking Kobane is female, for example. But even well-meaning reporters insist on bringing the conversation back to boyfriends, marriage, and kids, like this generally good story by Australia’s 60 Minutes, which drags in the question of boyfriends, etc., at the 8:49 point.

Even fellow Kurds are bothering YPJ women with that kind of nonsense. A very good BBC documentary, “Inside Kobane,” with a male Kurdish journalist and female videographer visiting YPJ/G fighters in Kobane in late 2014, features a painful few minutes, starting at 11:28, when the male interviewer asks Commander Avindar, a Turkish Kurd in charge of a YPJ unit, about “relationships.” Then he asks her how old she is. Even though it’s clear she’s under orders to be nice to the press, she murmurs, “Do I have to answer that?” and takes what revenge she can by assuring the impudent boy that “It’s not serious” when he flinches at an explosion.

But these are quibbles, and the sexualization of female fighters in these two videos is nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to a supposedly more highbrow article by a supposedly talented novelist, in the supposedly literate New Republic: Jen Percy’s “My Terrifying Night with Afghanistan’s Only Female Warlord.”

Of course, many a good article has been stuck with a bad headline. But not this time. Percy’s article is every bit as bad as its title. In fact, it’s Exhibit A on what American media gets wrong about women in war.

Percy doesn’t seem to know much about Afghanistan. Not once in the story does she tell the reader where her “terrifying night” took place—not even the province in which the “female warlord” operates. That’s kind of a big omission in the Afghan context. In fact, not once does she mention the ethnic identity of the “warlord” and her fighters. That kinda matters in Afghanistan. I’m guessing the woman and her fighters are Tajik, from the north side of the big watershed—and that makes all the difference here—but you wouldn’t know what language the principals speak, what ethnic group they come from, in Percy’s article.

All Percy cared about was an angle, and she found the obvious one: a promising gender anomaly, a “female warlord”—as imagined by a very ignorant American. That’s exactly the kind of angle you should be careful of when you’re jumping cultures, because “female” doesn’t mean the same thing in rural Afghanistan that it does in Percy’s America.

I’m an American, and it wasn’t until I’d lived in the Middle East for years that I could see just how American I was, above all in my notions about gender and bodies. Americans see everything as a sexual hierarchy, and that seems so natural to us that you have to work very hard to realize it’s not a universal human pattern of thought, but a particularly American one. Percy hasn’t taken that time, doesn’t even know she needed to if she was to see what this Tajik matriarch is doing. The results…well, they’re pretty durn funny, and then infuriating, by turns.

Percy sets the stage with what might be called “disarming candor.” A mere three weeks after arriving in Afghanistan, she hears about this woman who runs a militia, sees a photo of her, and boom, we’re off to see the warlord--in Percy’s foggy notion, Mistuh Kurtz in a chador:

“I’d been living in Afghanistan three weeks when my guide…showed me a photograph of the country’s only known female warlord, Bibi Ayisha, nom de guerre Commander Pigeon…In the photograph, she looked to be about 200 pounds and 60 years old. A large woman with black eyes made small by folds of skin. A beaked nose protruded from a wide flat face. She held her machine gun against her bosom like a bouquet of roses. A few girls dressed in bright loose tunics holding AK-47s stood at her side, with ammo wound like gold pythons around their necks.”

One paragraph into the story, and already it’s gone very badly wrong. What you see in this opening paragraph is Percy’s home-world: Upper-middle class America, home of the strivers, winners of Pushcart Prizes and Capote Fellowships. This is a world where age, weight, and looks are everything—in which context, it might not be amiss to see what Percy looks like.

That merciless, unchanging emphasis on every wrinkle, every ounce of extra weight, took me right back to the world of striving Americans, where the only two sins that can’t be forgiven are gaining weight and getting old. That’s what Percy emphasizes here: “In the photograph, she looked to be about 200 pounds and 60 years old.” In other words, too fat and too old—for Percy’s world, but not for a rural Afghan world, or, indeed, anywhere in the Middle East.

You’re allowed to be fat—or fat by upper-class American standards, anyway—in the Muslim world. That’s something that shocks you, if you’re from Percy’s world. I remember how befuddled I was, the first time my students in Najran called a classmate “fat” and he nodded happily. I expected him to burn with shame and anger, but it was just another adjective to them, no stigma at all.

There may be some pressure on girls (not boys) to stay thin before marriage and childbirth, but the notion that a 60-year old rural matriarch needs to pay attention to her weight would be risible, anywhere outside Percy’s hypersexual, anorexic milieu.

But Percy has only learned one way of apprehending the world, and it’s the one you see in bourgeois American literature, where every feature is subject to intense scrutiny. So we get a great deal of talk about Commander Pigeon’s features: “…a beaked nose protrud[ing] from a wide flat face…”

OK, the woman has a wide flat face and a sharp nose. That’s called “being a Central Asian.” It isn’t a window to the soul. And it would be an odd choice of focus for someone from Commander Pigeon’s world. Why all this this detail about an old woman’s face? She’s a matriarch and a militia commander; what does her face have to do with it? It’s not like she’s going to be married off.

And then, the topper: “She held her machine gun against her bosom like a bouquet of roses.” How do you hold a big heavy automatic weapon “like a bouquet of roses”? If I didn’t know better, I’d say that was about the most sexist remark I ever read.

And indeed it is! The whole article keeps making the same mistake, imposing the highly sexualized, youth-worshipping, individualist world Percy knows on the very de-sexualized, clan-based, rural world she’s trying to describe. The New Republic, which seems to have sponsored Percy’s trip, was rash enough to publish a “gallery” of photos from Percy’s trip to see this “female warlord.” Take a look at them, and you don’t see anything like what Percy describes.

There’s none of the fetishized guns, nothing to show that anybody holds their guns “like a bouquet of roses.” And there’s none of the Lesbian-Vampire hints that Percy keeps scattering through the article, about Commander Pigeon’s relationship with those “hot chicks with AK-47s.” All you see is a clan matriarch trying to hold her male relatives in a cohesive irregular force in a miserably frozen landscape, or posing proudly with her grandsons.

What I saw in this series was the faces of Commander Pigeon’s male relatives, her available fighters. There’s the key, the reason this woman is a “female warlord” in the first place. She’s not trying to break old boundaries, she’s not trying to strike a blow for gender rights, she’s not some vampire-dominatrix from an old movie. She’s trying to keep herself and her clan alive, and there are no other candidates to take charge. It’s that simple.

Look at the first photo in the series, and try to see it like you would if you were living in a cold, lawless wilderness with the Taliban looking for a way to kill your whole clan. You need to have a smart, strong person in command. Who? Those male relatives standing behind her. You can see why she’s in charge: Not one of the males looks fit for command. The old guy next to her—smart, maybe, but too passive, too old. The young men—look how they hang back, stare aimlessly, watch for someone else to give the cue. They’re OK as trigger-pullers, but that’s all.

That’s why she’s in charge: The line hasn’t bred true. She’s taller, stronger and smarter than her male kin. They turned out bad, dumb-looking. So she had to take charge, after the last intelligent male relative was killed by the Taliban

Percy saw none of that. She sees the world that brought her here, where you have to be young and beautiful and skinny to make it.

And, imposing her world on this Tajik village scene, Percy proceeds to turn her encounter with the harried matriarch/commander into the two things that matter to striving Americans: sex and food, and the terror of being denied individual agency in either.

It’s one of the funniest misreadings I’ve encountered since Pale Fire, though it’s more like P. G. Wodehouse than Nabokov in its playing with typecast characters. Percy—horror of horrors—is force-fed by the matriarch! Forced to eat chicken! And quite possibly, improperly cooked chicken! And then forced to lie next to the “Female Warlord,” like the vampire queen’s concubine!

No wonder the matriarch finally turns to Percy’s minder and asks, “What is wrong with her?” It never seems to cross Percy’s twitchy American mind that the poor old woman was just trying to feed up this pitifully skinny, pale foreign girl, and make sure she kept her bony limbs warm in the cold. Percy keeps trying to find a dominatrix killer, and the matriarch keeps acting like a rural grandma:

A young girl, maybe four years old, climbed onto Commander Pigeon’s lap.

“What do you want to know?”

“Where are your female fighters?”

“But don’t you want to eat?” she said.

“Not really,” I said. Candy wrappers glittered on the floor and bits of stale food stuck to my feet.

I asked about the first time she took up a weapon.

“When you hold a weapon, you don’t cry, you just shoot.”

She dumped a bag of almonds on the ground and spread them around with her hands. She picked one up, cracked it open with her thumb, and sucked the meat from the shell.

“You guys don’t care about war. You will write your thing and go. I’m killing Taliban twelve months of the year.”

“Will you fight today?” I said.

Her hand dropped and she looked at Sharif. “What is wrong with her?” That has to be one of the funniest, and most revealing, interviews of all time. Ignoring the grandkid on the lap, a very, very important matter to an old woman whose life is the clan, Percy focuses on the horror of junk food and poor hygiene: “Candy wrappers glittered on the floor and bits of stale food stuck to my feet!”

No! The horror!

Then Percy wants to hear about the complex psychological trauma of combat, the topic of her very successful and very silly novel, Demon Camp. But the matriarch lets her down again: “When you hold a weapon, you don’t cry, you just shoot.” Oooo! There goes the whole plotline of Percy’s novel! And yet this simple attitude is exactly what I saw in the Pesh Merga of Suleimaniya, the first Muslim combat vets I encountered. They guarded our quarters 24/7, but they had none of the fascination with guns that many of my American colleagues showed in conversation. To the Pesh Merga, guns were like shovels, a tool. Something you have to use, like sandbags in a flood. I saw a rich American from Augusta, GA, try to engage one of them in a long conversation about the AK-47. Aside from the language problem, there was a cultural gulf. The Kurd didn’t see the romance of the AK. To him, it was literally child’s play, a weapon any boy in the neighborhood over the age of five could use with ease. It is, after all, a weapon designed to be used by any primate with a working digit or two. But the Georgia boy was all excited about its specs—range, rate of fire, accuracy. The Pesh Merga, a friendly and polite man like most Kurds, indulged the foreigner as long as he could, but never saw what the man was driving at.

After Percy’s ordeal by candy-wrappers comes the supreme horror, the force-feeding of pieces of turkey, overlaid with Hammer-Horror lesbian S&M overtones:

Commander Pigeon tore at the meat. She gripped the breast, and spread the leg until the skin broke and released steam. She broke ligaments, tendons, and a blue tangle of vein. She raised the meat to her mouth and tasted a curve of dark thigh. The meat cleaved between her fingers. The steam curled our hair.

…She tossed the leftovers to the children. They ate it off the floor.

I wasn’t eating the meat because Commander Pigeon kept grabbing it with her hands, covered in saliva and dirt, and because I had watched the turkey die and bleed. Commander Pigeon pointed at the meat. I politely ate a few pieces. I said I was full, and she slid over to me and pried the meat between my lips. She wouldn’t stop. The snow was climbing up the window. She made noises and mimed a hand touching her face. She mimed digging and crying. “Sharif,” I said. “Sharif!” I thought maybe the others were dead. My stomach ached. Her fingers slipped in and out of my mouth. She fed me. It was a kind of terrible nurture. The quiet soldier who used to belong to the Taliban opened the door. The wind came inside and carried snow with it. He squatted, held his AK, and watched.

Hours later, when Sharif and the others returned, I was collapsed against the wall. I told him what happened. “Don’t leave me alone with her again,” I said. Percy experienced “a terrible nurture,” sort of like Yeats’s oxymoron she stole it from, “a terrible beauty,” only more fattening. And that, of course, is Percy’s slim, nervous nightmare: She’s making me eat!

This terror of forced calories turns into some sort of sexualized hallucination as the old lady’s “fingers slipped in and out of [Percy’s] mouth.” What the matriarch saw, I’m willing to bet, was a monstrously skinny young woman, unmarried, wandering around a combat zone for no sane reason, and so helpless she couldn’t even see that she need to “fat up,” as Huck Finn would say. So the old woman, accustomed to taking charge in spite of her tired, arthritic joints (“I have terrible knees,” she complains to the totally uninterested Percy), sighs and starts doing the necessary, jamming pieces of nice fat turkey into this homeless, husband-less waif’s mouth.

And, since it is her responsibility as hostess to house as well as feed the bony weirdo, Commander Pigeon tries to keep her warm in the Northern Afghan winter…which Percy, true to her hyper-sexualized American perspective, sees as the final outrage:

The women cleared plates stacked with apple cores and bones. Commander Pigeon and the women tucked me into a bed on the floor. They dragged two comforters over my body, wedged the fabric under my arms, and slipped a soiled pillow beneath my head. Hours later, in the dark, she unrolled a sleeping mattress next to mine and slept close to me. She buried her face into my shoulder and snored. I kept my eyes open. The warlord twitched from what I imagined were terrible dreams.

The imagined sexual aggressions keep coming: “She buried her face into my shoulder…” but now they’re mixed with something risibly like sexual rejection: “…and snored.” Both, of course, are imaginary; it’s friggin’ winter in rural Afghanistan, it’s cold out there, neither of these women have husbands, they have to keep warm somehow. But that, of course, would be dismally un-sensational, and un-sexy, so the fantasy porn keeps coming. That last sentence is my favorite: “The warlord twitched from what I imagined were terrible dreams.”

Or, possibly, she was dreaming about how many grenades she had left. Or whether she’d checked on the useless second cousin assigned to guard duty tonight. Or some equally un-sexy worry of the sort that a poor old woman with bad knees, forced to take command for the good of her otherwise doomed Tajik clan, has to deal with, day in, day out.

So what is a rank amateur like Percy, a product of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, winner of a “Truman Capote Fellowship in Fiction” and a Pushcart Prize, doing,  thinking she can get into the head of an Afghan matriarch? .

Percy figured out that the best way to make her CV stand out from the crowd of Iowa Workshop grads was to write a war novel. You’ve probably heard of the result: Percy’s bestseller, Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism.

The novel is supposed to be about post-combat stress, but it’s got nothing to do with the flat wretchedness of PTSD stories. If you read a lot of PTSD stories, they’re all about unredeemed misery: divorce, alcoholism, poverty, shame, prescriptions, isolation. That’s not bestseller material, so Percy, using her Iowa prose ninjitsu, adds a veritable cheese-board of maudlin clichés to make the story redemptive, which is to say totally fake.

First of all, you gotta add some occult spice, so there’s a literal demon, “The Black Thing,” haunting the troubled vet. I mean, God forbid it should be ordinary PTSD; we need a Poltergeist angle here. And, just like the Poltergeist movies, there’s a Native-American angle—a shaman character trying to exorcize the aforementioned “Black Thing.” And naturally there’s plenty of cheesy Americana, such as “…demon camp in Portal, Georgia, where the line between heaven and earth is very thin…”--And, I hear, property taxes are low.

Some Iowa’s grads realized, it seems, that the public can only swallow so many carefully-crafted tales of bourgeois malaise—the kind of novel where the equally loathsome leads don’t get divorced til page 386--and looked around for a meatier topic, one with some nice gory street cred. Their model was Cormac McCarthy, who got rich and famous using a simple formula: Faulkner-style overwriting plus Peckinpah ultraviolence. You know you’re reading a McCarthy novel if you find grandiose folksy speeches alternating with splatter-gore. The effect is something like True Grit without the humor:

They needed careers, and they had this simple formula from McCarthy. The first part, the over-writing, came easy to them—O Lord, did it come easy!—but the second part, the ultraviolence…where were they gonna find that?

War. War involved the necessary ultra-violence; they knew that much about it. And they had the writing formula all ready for it. Their invasion was inevitable.

The result: the unstoppable invasion of Jen Percy and the McCarthyites. May Ixchel, “War Woman,” Mayan goddess of midwifery and war, protect us all.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]