x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Lines of combat

Feature When an ad hoc US Army unit was created to carry out 'culturally sensitive' tasks in Iraq, female soldiers found themselves in battles they weren't prepared for. Lioness documents their story.

Specialist Cynthia Espinoza, Staff Sgt Ranie Ruthig, Specialist Shannon Morgan, and Specialist Michele Perry in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2004.
Specialist Cynthia Espinoza, Staff Sgt Ranie Ruthig, Specialist Shannon Morgan, and Specialist Michele Perry in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2004.

Shannon Morgan is a tall, broad-shouldered young woman. She's full of loose-limbed strength, and her face is soft and open, the face of a kid. Morgan served in the US Army as a mechanic. She was a member of the First Engineer Battalion, stationed in Ramadi, Iraq, between 2003 and 2004. When we first encounter her in the documentary Lioness, she's back in Mena, Arkansas (population 5,634), living on disability, drinking on the porch, and shooting squirrels and other wildlife for entertainment. She chain smokes and has trouble sleeping. Her elderly parents talk about her with a deep but reticent love - they know things were tough for her "over there" but they don't want to dwell on it.

"She done her job," her father says, and in the long silence that follows, pride, guilt and worry flit across his face. Morgan was one of the US servicewomen attached to an ad hoc unit called Team Lioness, created in 2003 in Iraq when male commanders realised that women could take on certain aspects of counter-insurgency operations much more effectively than men. They were needed, for example, at checkpoints, to pat Iraqi women down, and during predawn home raids, to calm the women and children huddled in corners of the house. As one male commander says in the film, he realised that servicewomen were "a tremendous asset we had neglected for years". After considering a number of names for the women - Shield Maidens was one suggestion - the leadership settled on Lionesses (apparently blissfully unaware of the derogatory connotations of the word in Arabic, in which it refers to an insatiable or aggressive woman).

Team Lioness wasn't a fully fledged unit. To be a Lioness meant that you might be pulled now and then from your regular duties and attached to a male unit for a particular mission. Women in the US Army are banned from taking part in ground combat. All the women featured in the film had gone to Iraq as supply clerks, mechanics and communications specialists. "When I enlisted in the Army," says Morgan, "I enlisted as a track vehicle mechanic. To be honest with you, I was never expecting to have to fire my weapon."

Instead, as the film shows, Morgan ended up attached to a Marine unit in the middle of one of the worst fire fights in Ramadi. Part of the problem was that the lines between combat and non-combat roles were "very grey lines, because there are no front lines in Iraq", says Major Kate Pendry Guttormsen, the company commander. The idea that women might be playing a new and difficult role in the Iraq war was what lead to the making of Lioness. The filmmakers Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers say the film emerged from conversations they had at the beginning of the Iraq war about women's role in the conflict. They noticed news reports about women soldiers and, says Sommers, "As women, as filmmakers, this became a way for us to look at the war in a different way. We thought: there's got to be really interesting stories."

A contact in Washington mentioned the Lioness project to them. An article in the Marine Times featured a list of female soldiers' names. Sommers and McLagan started tracking the women down. It was a lengthy process, they say, to get permission for the interviews, and to win the women's trust. In addition to being thrust into combat situations they weren't prepared for, the female soldiers were used as intermediaries between the army and Iraqi women and children. They were often sent to schools and used in outreach programmes. They were also involved in less benign operations. In the film, Ranie Ruthig, a tall, blonde mechanic and mother from the Midwest, describes her discomfort when she was tasked with calming down terrified Iraqi women and children during raids on their homes. Inside one house, Ruthig and another female soldier removed their helmets. "Once they saw we were females, they started trying to talk to us," says Ruthig. "I felt like the Gestapo."

The role that soldiers such as Ruthig were asked to play is "very awkward and very difficult", says McLagan, who is also an anthropologist. "They become the tip of the spear, as they say in the military - the real interface with the civilian population." Some of the women wrote journals in which they candidly analysed their misgivings. Captain Anastasia Breslin, for example, wonders in one entry whether the intelligence they are basing their home raids on is sound and concludes that she can only hope so. Breslin is of Russian and Chinese ancestry and comes from a proud military family. Sitting on the living room couch, her mother laughs nervously and says Anastasia only told them about all the fire fights she'd been involved in after she returned from Iraq. Her father says that his daughter "did what had to be done" when she was in Iraq.

Breslin concludes one of her journal entries: "We kill for peace. We kill for each other. I'm still amazed I'm part of this." Sommers says, "I think the film is very clear about making the point of what the cost of war is, which now involves young women as well as young men. This is an important issue, no matter where you fall in your beliefs about the conflict. Young men and women bring the war home with them and it lives with them the rest of their lives."

A number of excellent documentaries have been released about the Iraq war, from Iraq in Fragments, to My Country, My Country to The Ground Truth, (which also addresses the consequences of the war on veterans). McLagan says the goal of Lioness was to understand "what people on the ground are asked to do, and what the cost to women is when they are sent into direct ground combat without preparation".

The bottom line, she says, is, "You can't ask a human being to go through this and then not recognise them." And yet that is more or less what happened. In one scene in Lioness, filmmakers arrange for the servicewomen to watch a History Channel special about the street fighting in Ramadi they had witnessed. The male narrator of Shootout: Ramadi, refers repeatedly to "the men who were there" and "the men who fought there". The female soldiers watch the TV screen, remembering where they were, pointing out places and events to each other.

"It's like they went out of their way not to mention us," Morgan says afterwards. Some expect that the regulations banning women from ground combat will be overturned eventually, especially considering that the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to require the use of female soldiers to carry out "culturally sensitive" tasks. "Some people think women shouldn't really be doing this, others think it's inevitable," says Sommers. "But you don't want someone in general operating in this grey zone. It prevents them from getting the help they need when they get home, as combat veterans, because what they did isn't recognised."

All the women in the film clearly struggled to work through their experiences "outside the wire". The toll for Morgan is perhaps the clearest. Out on a hunting expedition, sitting in the tall grass, she becomes increasingly distraught as she talks about the firefights and her participation in them. She rubs her face repeatedly and says, "I don't regret what I did but I really wish it had never happened."

Despite its excellent use of archival footage to recreate the situation in Ramadi in 2003 and 2004, Lioness isn't primarily a film about Iraq. It is a film about what comes after Iraq (or, for several of the women, what comes between tours in Iraq). The filmmakers do a lovely job of capturing the home lives of these soldiers - the strange transitions they have to make back to being wives, mothers, and daughters; their complicated relationship to service, how much it's a chance and a burden all in one.

We see Becky Nava, a Puerto Rican mom from Queens, getting ready to get into uniform, expertly winding her waist-long hair into the tightest of buns. We see her toddler staring wide-eyed at the revolving mobile above his crib. We see her stepfather, seriously ill with diabetes, struggling to babysit his grandchildren because Becky, her husband and her sister are all in the military, all coming and going from Iraq in a series of overlapping rotations.

We see Morgan go on a yearly ritual with her dad to find and fell a Christmas tree. She carries it, swung nonchalantly over a shoulder, and, back home, asks eagerly, "Is there anything else you want me to do?" We see her uncle, a Vietnam veteran, give her advice about her insomnia. "Don't question whether it was right or wrong," he says. Lioness tells the stories of five remarkable women in difficult circumstances. It doesn't ask its protagonists to condemn the Iraq war and it doesn't use their stories merely to back up its own condemnation. But we can draw our own conclusions about whether the losses and sacrifices of these soldiers - and of the Iraqis they've faced - have been worth it.