During the first year of the war in Iraq, in direct violation of the Congressional ban against placing female soldiers in the line of fire, Army squads made up of women, collectively named Team Lioness, accompanied Marine units on sweeps through the streets of Ramadi. Brought into the field to search women and children during house-to-house hunts for insurgents, or to guard interpreters (who are unarmed), these women found themselves engaged in firefights along with the Marines. Lioness, first screened as part of the PBS series Independent Lens, follows five women of diverse rank and background who took part in the Lioness actions as they recount their experiences in Iraq, readjust to life back home, and work to gain recognition for their actions.
Directors Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers let the women and their families tell the story, occasionally providing newscast footage, excerpts from an interview with a single expert, and comments from military personnel and lawmakers to contextualize events, in lieu of narration. Lioness profiles Specialist Shannon Morgan, Specialist Rebecca Nava, Captain Anastasia Breslow, Sergeant Ranie Ruthig, and Major Kate Guttormsen.
Lioness devotes plenty of time to each of its subjects, but Morgan is singled out for the fullest portrait. She’s introduced first, has the most screen time, and seems most comfortable in front of the camera. Strength, confidence, and vulnerability play over her face when she talks about Iraq or sits with her peers at a Lioness reunion. Guttormsen, the officer in charge of assigning women to Lioness details, calls her “a tough gal”. When Morgan relates that a Marine squad leader pulled his team out of one altercation with insurgents without accounting for her, and reports that she tracked him down and “kicked him in the nuts”, you believe it’s not an exaggeration.
Yet of all the women, Morgan speaks most candidly about her time in Iraq, relating what it’s like to be under fire, to be left behind in a firefight, to kill someone in combat. We learn about her difficult childhood, how she was abandoned by her parents and raised by her grandparents, to whom she remains devoted.
She best embodies the unique position shared by all five women: forced into a situation that made them de facto equals of male combat soldiers, they remain unassimilated into male warrior culture. That is, the Lioness actions prove that women can fight on the same terms as men, but also suggest that women cope with combat, and the stress of military life in general, differently than men.
For one thing, they are comfortable talking or writing about their concerns and anxieties. Breslow and Guttormsen both kept journals to help them come to terms with their Iraq experiences. They read aloud from passages in which they recorded the stress and rigor of life in a war zone, or empathized with the Iraqi women they met, imagining what it must be like to be subject to an occupying force. Morgan sought counseling through the Little Rock Veterans Administration, and her speech bears the marks of that work, through therapeutic language like “You never get over it; you get on with it”.
Male soldiers remain suspicious of such expressiveness. Guttormsen recalls a male colleague cautioning her against hugging her soldiers, because he thought it undercut her authority. Guttormsen disagrees, and she and Morgan posit that women’s more emotive engagement helps them better cope than men who keep themselves closed off. Morgan’s uncle Glenn would probably agree. He relates that it took him over thirty years to make progress in processing his time in Vietnam, and he was instrumental in convincing Morgan to pursue therapy with the VA.
When one of the male officers responsible for naming team Lioness discusses the search for an appropriately uplifting name, he presents the decision as a half-joking exercise in female empowerment. While the Lionesses see the acknowledgement of emotion as a superior coping mechanism, male officers dismiss it as a flaw to be exploited as an easy route to esprit de corps.
The army has company in diminishing the accomplishments of Team Lioness. Traditional military history ignores them altogether. During the July 2006 Lioness reunion, the five subjects of the film watch a History Channel documentary about combat in Ramadi. They all marvel at the fact that they are not mentioned at all, not even in descriptions of specific actions in which they took part. “The tide is finally turning for the weary men of two four”, the narration explains, as if the clichéd, creaky machinery of traditional documentary leaves no space for alternative stories. The scene thus draws attention to the role of Lioness as revisionary history that sets the record straight.
Much as lawmakers like Representative Duncan L. Hunter (R, California), seen in the film reiterating the ban against women in combat, might like to return to the status quo, the genie’s out of the bottle to stay. Follow-up interviews with the subjects of Lioness, available on the Independent Lens website, show that they are working for change within the system, lobbying for accommodations for parenting that women in the civilian workforce already enjoy. Nava and Guttormsen both argue for the implementation of paternity leave to complement existing maternity leave, and for the establishment of sabbaticals for military couples with infants, so that both father and mother aren’t deployed overseas at the same time, forced to leave their children in the care of long-term guardians.
Extras includes the film trailer, filmmaker biographies, and nine segments of “bonus footage,” including a short piece on the lionesses’ visit to Capitol Hill to gain recognition.
The film is not rated, but contains disturbing footage of war dead, not least the burned bodies of Blackwater contractors.