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Kayla William’s Love My Rifle More Than You: A Review

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

Kayla William's Love My Rifle More Than You opens with a bang: “Sometimes, even now, I wake up before dawn and forget I am not a slut.”

Now that’’s a first sentence.

And the first two chapters are--aside from a few language issues--about as perfect as two first chapters can be. It is a collage-style meditation on being “young and female in the US Army”, a series of anecdotes, joke, scenes and clips of dialogue thrown into a big old pot, making a delicious literary stew. It reminded me of Herr’s Dispatches or O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. When I reached page eighteen, I wrote in my notes, "Man, I love this book. I hope the whole thing is a series of non-chronological stories like this one."

You probably know where this is going. After a brilliant title, opening sentence, and first two chapters, Love My Rifle More Than You goes seriously down hill. Part of the problem, like Exum’s This Man’s Army (review pending), is the book doesn’t have anywhere to go. It takes Williams eighty pages to get to Iraq, and there isn’t much to do once she gets there, except complain about everyone else. This is an argument for fiction writing; you can make the plot up if real life gets too boring.

I liked some sections, like when Williams comes across a field of unexploded ordnance and struggles to explain it to the locals, or when her team encounters locals waving dead white chickens at her passing convoy. Her prose is mostly uncensored--completely passing the litmus test--writing about eating, shitting, sex, political context, dead animals, and political context. In the second to last chapter, she knowledgeably writes about interrogation and prisoner abuses.

In between the bright spots, there is way too much down time, which leads to petty disagreements. Williams fueds with Staff Sergeant Moss, the sergeant who replaces her, Staff Sergeant Simmons, her Lieutenant, Quinn, her Battalion Commander, her ex-boyfriend, and most of the guys from the COLT (Combat Observation and Lasing Team) unit she hangs out with. You get the idea. (This isn't all bad. Williams has a level of self-reflection not found in other memoirs. Read the comment thread below for more.)

And then we come to the hypocrisy. At the beginning, Williams describes a girl, “No rumor. Truth” who gave oral sex to every guy in her unit. At the end of the book, Williams describes the gossip that goes around, that girls on the Prophet team--part of a signal intelligence unit--”give it up”. The problem is that midway through the book Williams becomes a victim of this type of rumor mongering. Why doesn’t she give the same benefit of doubt to her fellow Soldiers that the COLT team should have given to her?

Other annoying language issues and basic punctuation mistakes scattered throughout Love My Rifle More Than You mar the prose. Also, on the title page, Michael Staub’s name appears. Apparently this poor guy was the memoir’s ghostwriter, or co-writer, or who knows what. His name is absent from the cover, the inside covers, and the back cover, like a ghostly human typo. As a writer, I feel bad for the guy.

The million dollar question: should you read Love My Rifle More Then You? Maybe. Find the first two chapters and inhale them. They belong in the anthology of post-9/11 war writing. But outside of that, I would say skip it.

six comments

This is exactly what I would have written, with one exception: I hesitate to harp too much on her description of the in-bitching. It might be boring as shit (and it is…painfully so) but it’s more honest than the blowhard stuff that fills a lot of the other memoirs I’ve read. In particular, the way she described her relationships with other women was so honest it made me wince. Quite a few women have communication issues with other women (a sign of immaturity?). She never admits that immaturity out right, but it’s clear she is admitting things that she knows are not a very good reflection of her (It’s a central theme of the book, IMO.). Quite often, these war memoir writers only admit mistakes in actions/decisions in battle or a meeting, then point the finger to who should be blamed for misleading them. I haven’t seen many authors admit their character defects/bad relationship choices the way she does- and it’s those things that drive life.

Actually, jenniferro10, I do agree with you. Williams is way more honest than most every other memoir. Like I said, she says things other memoirists just don’t. and she is really critical of her past history, which was refreshing compared to memoirs like “One Bullet Away” “Joker One” “Lone Survivor” or “This Mans Army”

That said, a couple of points for why i think it becomes a negative. There is no balance. Almost the entire book consists of the in-bitching. On that, she disagrees with everyone, instead of just some people. Finally, I think she always considered herself right in her debates, except in the opening chapter.

but you’re right, she achieves a level of self reflection other memoirs can’t muster. I may edit the post to reflect that.

I appreciate your reviews. I have a lot of these books and have only read a few because I haven’t enjoyed them. I think you’re spot on that someone needs to do a novel on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to capture the truth.

My husband long ago convinced me to stop reading reviews of my book, since some of them got me really riled up (especially the ones on Amazon that started, “I haven’t read this, but…”). However, someone forwarded this to me, and I think you make some really fair points – thought you might be interested in my response.

I’ve had plenty of time to think since the book came out, and have realized that if I had waited a couple of years, it would have been a completely different book. If you read “Jarhead,” for example, it reads like exactly what it is: a book written ten years later by a guy who has gained some perspective and is trying to remember what it sounded like to cuss all the time. When I was working on “Love My Rifle,” I was still in the Army, and still completely emotionally involved all of it.

Later, when I read “Night Draws Near,” and the author described how his roommate snapped at him for smoking right before the invasion started — not for the smoke but for the way his breath sounded while he smoked — it hit me: A lot of the problems we had on my team weren’t about me, or my teammates, but about the incredible stress of the situation we were in, invading a foreign country, confined to a truck with one another all the time. An embarrassingly belated realization, perhaps, but when I was working on the book, I didn’t have any emotional or psychological distance at all.

I freely admit that I became much tougher on other women while in Iraq, because of the degree to which we all were made to represent all women. Trying so hard to prove myself, it made me crazy when others undercut those efforts. I’m sure that the women around me before I grew up a little found me just as atrociously annoying!

As to me being a bit self-righteous and defensive, reluctant to admit when I’m wrong – well, my husband would definitely agree with you on that. Can I claim the 5th? ;-)

It’s been fascinating for me to see how the things I personally saw fit into a larger context – my observations on the 4th ID guys in light of what I later read about Odierno’s leadership style pre-“seeing the light” (or “drinking the koolaid,” depending on your view of COIN theory…), for example. So much of what I saw was from my own very limited perspective, and learning more since coming home definitely gave me a greatly expanded lens through which to assess my little piece of the war.

Anyway, I’m not defending the book’s flaws – merely trying to give them a bit of context. I look forward very much to seeing how writing about these wars changes in the coming years, as authors have more time to process what they experienced and put it into a larger context.

@Kayla- I’ll freely admit that I haven’t read Love My Rifle More Than You. I am knee deep in books on the history and politics of Iraq so I have let my co-blogger do most of the reviews of memoirs and fiction. But your response is interesting so I would like to respond.

I think the perspective you talk about—that you gained after you had been back for a little bit—is the main reason I have held off from publishing a memoir. Well the first reason is that I don’t think enough interesting stuff happened to me to necessitate a memoir. But the second reason is that I think if I put enough emotional distance between me and my men, then the work would seem hollow. If I was too honest then I would fear ruining the relationships I had developed.

I also understand exactly what you mean about the stress of the situation. Looking back on deployment, it is weird the things that were life and death, the annoyances that caused dramatic outbursts, so I understand what it is like to feel annoyed by everything during deployment. It is the stress.

Anyways glad you commented and hope you enjoy the blog.

Hey Kayla,

The tough part about writing negative reviews is knowing the authors may read them. (I wrote a whole post this). Maybe other anonymous people on the internet can write negatively about other people without it affecting them, but unless a memoir or novel is truly offensive, it affects me.

In the past, when I’ve liked books, I try to contact the authors. But when I’m on the fence or dislike something, I don’t.

But like I said in my post, the first two chapters of “Love My Rifle More Than You” are basically perfect. That’s an amazing feat. Your book is one of the better books about Iraq. You provide context, include ugly/uncomfortable things and are altogether honest. Not many authors can say that.

In my opinion, it’s the job of a reviewer to be honest. I’m waiting for Iraq or Afghanistan’s “Dispatches” or “The Things They Carried” (both books I consider basically perfect); otherwise, I have to point out how the book I’ve read didn’t reach that level.

I hope you keep writing—you def. know how to—and please send along anything you write in the future.