Independent Lens: Lioness

I didn’t foresee the need. I didn’t foresee the circumstance to set itself up such that we would utilize the female soldiers in the role we did.

— Lt. Richard Cabry

I think my soldiers had a difficult time figuring out if they think they should be there, because every unit that goes over there, people are losing people. It’s the way of Iraq.

–Major Kate Guttormsen

“She done what she was supposed to do.” Jean is proud of Shannon Morgan, the young woman he and his wife Vivian raised as their own. The two of them head into the woods nearby their home in Mena, Arkansas, where they hunt small game and tease one another (“Turtle killer!”), quietly enjoying one another’s company. “When I came back from Iraq,” Shannon says, “It was so emotional for me, I didn’t really know what to say.” Shannon sits in front of her computer, playing solitaire on screen. Vivian nods, drawing, on her cigarette. “She sees all the things from the war again, and so she stays up. I’ve known her to stay up for two nights in a row.”

Shannon’s distress is both like and unlike that suffered by male combat veterans. While she has “done what she was supposed to do,” as Jean says, it’s actually not exactly clear what that was or is. As a woman in the U.S. military, Shannon has no official role in combat. Indeed, this is the first point made in Lioness, Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers’ understated, affecting documentary on women serving in combat in Iraq: “U.S. policy bans women from units whose primary mission is direct ground combat.” This means they operate in a “grey zone,” not quite legal or formally ordained, but following orders. It’s a status left deliberately fuzzy by the current Administration because, as noted by Captain Lory Manning, retired from the U.S. Navy, “They do not want that question coming before Congress again or catching the public interest while operations in Iraq are still going on.”

The conspicuous lack of discussion, debate, or decision within the civilian government or in any sort of public forum means that he military — as it so often does — must contend with the resulting confusion in its own way. Women combat vets, deployed as communications, supply, and support troops, find themselves in combat situations without proper training when they go in or structures of support when they come home. While this situation is surely not unique for women, it is pretty much the norm for them. The documentary, which makes its television premiere tonight as part of PBS’ Independent Lens, points out that the contradictions they bear can be impossible to sort out.

“I don’t watch the news, I don’t read newspapers,” Morgan says, “but you don’t ever forget the experiences of war. They stay embedded in your memory every single day.” Her particular experiences have to do with direct engagement in Ramadi, where she and other women were deployed in 2004 as Team Lioness. Their initial role was described as supporting the male front line troops, primarily supposed to search Iraqi women and provide a “reassuring” presence for women and children, especially as U.S. troops assaulted their houses in pursuit of insurgents. Lt. Richard Cabry, commander of the 1/5 Field Artillery Unit, recalls, “The goal is to insure that nobody is smuggling anything, but culturally, we knew that male soldiers could not search women with our hands.” The American women soon took on other duties, based on the teams’ needs and women’s abilities, official or not. Morgan, for example, was a good shot (“In fact,” Jean says proudly, “She outshot all of the others in the platoon that she was in, men and women”), and so was assigned to carry her saw (the M249 light machine gun) into the streets alongside male Marines. Originally with the Army, Morgan admits, “I found the transition from the Army to the Marines definitely a shock… The Marines, they’re used to a lot of intense combat, they actually go into the city and draw out insurgents.”

It was in this capacity that Morgan was first abandoned by her male fellows (she was unfamiliar with Marine signs or language, different from those used in the Army, and, in any event, was left in the street alone), then found herself shooting at enemy fighters. Her memories, which emerge piece by piece in the film’s multilayered storytelling, are still difficult to articulate. “I remember hesitating,” she says, “and they told me, ‘If you hesitate, you’re dead.”

For that second, I was like, “God, is this right?” Because nobody really knows. I don’t want to go to hell someday because I killed somebody and stuff like that. But then I realized, I betcha he’s not caring over there or he wouldn’t be shooting at me. And I got him right in my peach, you know, and fired. It’s something you learn to deal with… I don’t regret what I did, but I wish they never would have happened, in that aspect. Yeah.

Morgan’s visible disquiet “dealing with” what happened is compared in the film to her Uncle Glenn’s description of his experiences in Vietnam. “You’re there,” he says, “And don’t question why. If you ever come back and question, then you’re gonna have trouble. Just be proud of what you done and don’t question if it’s right or wrong.” She nods, glad for his encouragement but not wholly convinced. “For the most part, I agree with Uncle Glenn,” she says. “But you can’t help but just wonder, if somebody had done something different, things would have been different.”

Other women in Lionessgo through similar wondering. Sometimes the confusion has to do with returning from war. Sergeant Ranie Ruthig, a mechanic, first appears in the film working in a factory, her head bent, her focus intent on her task and tools. “When I first got home, I realized, you have a lot of tension and aggression you didn’t have before,” she recalls in voiceover as she winds back a huge wrench. “There was a time or two I had to apologize to my daughter, because she wanted a bowl of cereal and it didn’t fit with what I was doing at the moment. I might have yelled, I guess. I didn’t feel I was doing anything right. It’s just weird to be a mom and come back to it like that.” This after her encounters with young Iraqi girls in the street, whom she describes as around her daughter’s age, filthy, shoeless, asking for water and food. It “broke my heart,” she sighs, “We were warned beforehand, ‘Please don’t feed the people begging by the side of the road.'” Specialist Anastasia Breslow nods. “It was like Mad Max, where it’s like after the destruction’s occurred.”

For Major Kate Guttormsen, the only female company commander in her battalion, the trauma extended from events to aftermaths. While, she notes, the enemy outside the wire “doesn’t care what gender you are,” she and her soldiers, male and female, contended with gendered expectations daily. Reprimanded by a male officer for hugging Morgan following one incident, Guttormsen says, “It bothered me because there’s still an emotional side, which… I found women dealt with much better than men.”

Guttormsen’s point concerning masculine and military conventional repressions of emotion (and trauma) is of a piece with other repressions, institutional and cultural. Chief among this film’s many revealing moments is a scene in which the Lioness team reunites. After exchanging comments on new tattoos and babies, they sit down to watch a History Channel documentary on the battle in Ramadi, in which they participated. Their eyes go wide and their jaws drop, as they realize that they are not even mentioned in the film, which refers repeatedly to the dangers faced by courageous U.S. men. Erased from the public record, the women point out events and images they shared on that day: “You and I were on that one, weren’t we?”

While the women in Lioness don’t doubt their own experiences, they are expected again and again to forget, cover over, and “move on.” The filmmakers argue that U.S. civilians tend to think of women in the current wars as existing within a reductive range (between “Jessica Lynch at one extreme and Lynndie England at the other”). Their documentary effectively refutes those limits, imposed by popular culture and, insidiously, by an administration in search of simple narratives and self-serving rationales. War, by definition, is always traumatic and costly. Still, the film argues eloquently, it is hardly sane, healthy or patriotic that more trauma and more costs have been imposed on women combat troops. It is past time to tell the truth about their sacrifices and acts of courage.

RATING 8 / 10