Sandra Perron had a dream growing up: She and a friend "were going to join the army together, become paratroopers in the same battalion and the godmothers of each other's daughters who would be born on exactly the same day and would grow up to be best friends and paratroopers too."
It wasn't quite the usual fantasy of a Canadian teenage girl. And at the time, the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were no women in Canada's combat units at all. But a combination of personal stubbornness and changing cultural winds eventually propelled Perron into the field as the country's first female infantry officer. Twenty years after her discharge, she has written a revealing and moving memoir of her time fighting in the Canadian army – and fighting the Canadian army. The second battle, it's clear, was the harder of the two.
Perron grew up following her father, a military firefighter from Quebec, from one Canadian Forces base to another. When she signed up herself in 1983, she told the recruiting officer she wanted to be a "commando." He suggested being a nutritionist. Instead, she first became an officer in a transport unit and in 1989, when combat roles began opening to women, asked to join the infantry.
Her main battlefield, it turned out, wasn't in a foreign war zone – it was inside the closed world of army bases from Chilliwack, B.C., to Gagetown, N.B. While still studying for her first transport job, she was raped by another soldier. Later, two drunk soldiers tried to tear into her tent at night and were only narrowly fended off.
When she finally realized her dream of joining a fighting unit, she immediately ran into fierce resistance from peers and superiors who didn't want her there. Sometimes it was open, such as an officer telling her bluntly, "I don't believe women should be in the combat arms." More often, it was resistance of a pettier but more disturbing kind: Male soldiers sabotaged her gear, wrote crude notes and scribbled foul language on the back of her flak jacket. She was called a variety of names too vile to reprint in the newspaper. (True to the army's tradition of bilingualism, the names were in English and French.) But Perron banged her head against the wall until the wall broke. She became an officer in the Royal 22nd Regiment, the venerable francophone outfit known as the Van Doos.
Her willingness to describe contradictory parts of her character gives the reader a convincing portrait of a young woman trying to accomplish something hard alone. We encounter her as a gung-ho fighter excited about throwing grenades; as an officer telling dirty jokes to fit in with the guys; as an outsider disgusted by the army's male culture; as a distraught sister crying to her siblings; as "a very average woman who recoiled at the explosive sound of the 84 mm missile launcher and was afraid of spiders." The author is blunt about the price she paid to realize her dream – the loss of a promising relationship that buckled under the stress of army life, for example, and two abortions that were particularly agonizing for the daughter of a Catholic family. At one point, she says she "married" the infantry, acknowledging that as far as the army was concerned, "it had been a forced marriage."
The book gives us an account of an incident that made Perron briefly famous – a 1992 photograph taken during a POW simulation in which she was beaten, tied to a tree and left for hours in the snow – and which ballooned into an abuse scandal. The story, she tells us, was always more complicated than it seemed. The captain in charge, who struck her himself, was one of the few who actually believed in her, she says, and was trying to prove she could take it. She could and she's still proud of it. That incident, she tells us, was negligible compared to the constant harassment during her years of service: "The ceaseless little cuts they inflicted on me hurt more than anything that happened that night in Gagetown, but no one listened because those aren't sensational."
Through it all, though, she expresses her love for army service and for her regiment. The period she remembers most fondly was a stint commanding a platoon of peacekeepers during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, during which she navigated a bewildering civil war and had two of her vehicles disabled by mines, one of which wounded a soldier. After her time in the military ended – curtailed, in this account, by male officers who shunted her aside into a job beneath her abilities – she told one of her superiors, "You will never find a woman, perhaps even a man, who wanted to be a Van Doo as badly as I did."
I found Perron's memoir especially interesting as a Canadian who served in an infantry unit – but in Israel, where I moved from Toronto at 17. (Like Perron, I served in an anti-tank outfit armed with the American TOW missile.) It was reassuring to see universal military logic at work, as in an episode where the army has to send her for French or English training and doesn't care that she speaks both perfectly. Or when the army decides to go green by using biodegradable sandbags, which disintegrate in Yugoslavia right when they're needed.
Perron writes like a combat soldier – factual, direct and close to the ground, a style that is effective in getting her experience across without artifice. This isn't a book about ideas. But I think the case that Out Standing in the Field is trying to make, for the integration of women in combat, might have been spelled out explicitly rather than assuming the reader agrees.
The book ends with criticism of what Perron sees as a disregard for diversity among the men who run the army – a debate playing out not just in Canada, of course, but here in Israel and in many Western countries trying to navigate between liberal values and the ugly business of killing people who pose a threat, which is the job of the military. The different character of the Israeli debate has to do with the greater likelihood of war here and with the compulsory draft (of men and women) that makes these questions more immediate for the average Israeli than for the average Canadian. In Israel, at least, many believe there are questions that can't be resolved simply by appealing to equality.
Some dangerous jobs in the Israeli military are open to women, such as the air force, and more are opening. But front-line ground combat units remain exclusively male. The army is signalling that this isn't going to change any time soon – if ever. Unlike flying a fighter jet, ground combat is based on the conditioning of a group of people to kill some people and die for other people under prolonged conditions of intimacy and extreme duress. This is always hard to pull off. If women are introduced among the men, will this increase or decrease everyone's chances of succeeding and making it home? Can an army simultaneously encourage 21st-century gender sensitivity and the primal killer instinct required in warfare? Is it liberal to expand the pool of people who need to be trained to kill? Should infantrymen practise marksmanship on targets shaped like women? Is that progress? The questions are complicated and will continue to preoccupy us. Perron's worthwhile and timely memoir suggests she has an important contribution to make in shaping the answers.
Matti Friedman's 2016 book Pumpkinflowers: An Israeli Soldier's Story was a finalist for the RBC Taylor Prize and the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction.