When I deployed to Afghanistan in 2006, I had about a week or so of training, in which I was the only individual going to an actual war zone (everyone else was deploying to Qatar), led by a group of Air Force Military Police who had recently returned from Iraq. While the training covered items such as what to do during a mortar attack, how to drive a humvee, and what actions to take should you be the gunner during a contact situation, the training was in no way sufficient when you compare it to the months and years that the combat arms units of the military spend on those combat skills. While I didn’t go out on patrols and I wasn’t in a firefight, I did go outside the wire each day, there was gunfire directed at our base during a riot, and, one occasion, I had driven through an area five minutes before a suicide bomber blew up a humvee and killed two US soldiers and sixteen locals. The women of Lioness faced even more dangerous situations than I did and with only slightly more training than I had.
Lioness, released in 2008 after three years of filming, is a documentary about Army women, officer and enlisted, who were attached to male combat units for search operations, specifically to be able to search women who, because of custom, could not be searched by men. Using the stories of five women, SPC Shannon Morgan, SPC Rebecca Nava, MAJ Kate Guttormsen, CPT Anastasia Breslow, and SSG Ranie Ruthig, the filmmakers attempt to portray how and why these women were used by the military (despite laws and policies in place at the time preventing women from serving in direct ground combat), what their experiences were like, and what it has meant for them in the aftermath. It is told primarily through video of the women a year after they returned from deployment, combined with a few photos and interviews with other current and retired military men and women. It has been called “Powerful” by the LA TIMES and “Poignant” by USA TODAY. It has also won the Full Frame Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award and been an Official Selection at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival and the 2008 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
Despite the accolades, I found Lioness to be a disappointment. There are a few good moments in the film. For example, when SPC Morgan discusses her Marine fire team deviating from standard procedure, resulting in her being stranded alone in the middle of the street during a firefight with no cover (her reaction to which evoked a chuckle and a cheer from me), which illustrates the danger in randomly assigning women to a unit of men who have trained and fought together and feel loyalty to each other but not to the female assigned to them. I also thought the Lioness reunion in 2006, when they watch a History Channel program on an operation in Ramadi in which they participated, but which made not a single mention of them, was also relevant.
Generally, though, the film was slow moving, with the majority of the 81 minute film being made up of gratuitous footage of the women hunting, discussing PTSD, and hanging out with family. Meanwhile the good stuff – archival footage illustrating how the percentage of women in the military has grown drastically in the post-Vietnam era and how their roles during that period have also morphed at a considerable rate, the women’s key comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee after an early viewing of the film, the Marine adaptation of the Lioness program and the six days of training each woman received before being assigned to a unit – was relegated to the extra features.
I think Lioness was a missed opportunity to actually discuss the role women have played in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how the Lioness idea came about and was implemented, and what the very real challenges – both from the enemy and from the friendlies – were to their completing their mission. As well as the challenges they faced afterwards, such as the VA diagnosing them with “depression” instead of PTSD, because as women they were legally not allowed into combat and PTSD was supposed to be a combat related condition. A situation that was easy for the VA to spin because, unlike their male counterparts, there was no record of their actual combat performance and no awarding of the Combat Action Badge. While the film does try to address the irony that the laws and policies in place at that time to prevent women from experiencing direct combat were the very rules and policies that prevented them from getting the training they needed, as well as the discrepancies in how these women were treated after completing the mission, I don’t believe it does this effectively.
You can find out more about the film and watch the official trailer here.
© 2014, Sarah Maples. All rights reserved.