U.S. Army veteran Joanna Rakowski’s memoir of training to become an intelligence officer in the early 2000s presents a deeply felt case study in perseverance and determined self-transformation.
What makes Rakowski’s story especially compelling is that she transformed herself on several different fronts. Born in Communist Poland, she immigrated in the mid-’90s and embraced her new life as an American. And, prior to becoming a “hard-core” soldier, she was a ballerina in Warsaw, intensely identifying with the popular image of her avocation as “fragile, sensitive, and ethereal.”
Rakowski shares glimpses of a former relationship in Poland and of her marriage in the U.S., but the book is mostly given over to Army training in all its grueling particulars, both physical and psychological. Her journey takes her from basic training, through learning the specialized role of HUMINT (Human Intelligence Collector), to passing OCS (Officer Candidate School), where she learns to not just receive but also give orders.
Rakowski experiences some sexism and, at one point, as part of her training, a traumatic faked execution. However, her story is not intended as critique. She’s steadfastly proud of being part of the U.S. Army’s ethos and history, and in her accomplishments in it (fellow soldiers dub Rakowski “Lieutenant Magic”).
Her account conveys the rigors of countless marches, drills and push-ups, and the demands of a distinctive culture built on elaborate protocols of deference and respect. Intriguingly, she finds some common ground between this life and ballet (mostly, in terms of the intense physical demands.)
For some, the author’s style may be trying. She describes each step in her Army training, bogging down, at times, in granular detail, such as discussing a volunteer project she took on to lay floor tile for an Arizona base’s rec center. However, others who have served may find Rakowski’s experiences resonate with theirs, and the loved ones of young men or women considering doing the same should find her words instructive and revealing.