I was compelled to see the documentary Lioness at the Tribeca Film Festival because the basis is so intriguing. In the press notes for the film, this is the description: "Despite written policy banning women from direct ground combat, military commanders have been using women in direct ground warfare as an essential part of their operations since 2003. Though official policy forbids this operation and publicly denies its existence, this initiative and company of women have a name: they are called Team Lioness. Lioness. . .tells the story of the first group of Lionesses who went to Iraq as clerks, mechanics and engineers but returned a year later as America's first female combat veterans."
Much of the film deals with that last detail — that these women went abroad with the military, possessing expertise in certain fields but not having much training in direct combat. Mainly, it appears from the film, they were brought into hostile areas to help calm and placate the Iraqi women during raids, but when violence erupted, they were often forced to engage in direct combat, something official policy blatantly forbids. From here, the issues become not that women can't handle violence, but rather that these women simply weren't trained for that kind of action and that they innately handle the experience differently than men. For more about this complicated issue, read more.
The film primarily follows five female soldiers and their post-Iraq stories. Some are mothers and wives, some are now living with their parents, all of them have harrowing stories of finding themselves in traumatizing situations, like having one moment to decide whether to shoot (and kill) or be shot at. Through one-on-one interviews and from reading journal entries we learn that the women feel a constant need to check their compassion. More than once they wonder aloud, "What would I do if this happened to me?" They see the fear in the faces of the Iraqi women and figure they'd also be pretty upset if a bunch of strangers demolished their homes. And yet, when in combat these thoughts and emotions seem to work against them. One male chief chided a high-ranking female soldier for hugging one of the women after an emotional day, saying, "Remember you're in charge."
Ultimately, they have to find ways of understanding the situation so that they're not entirely overcome with emotion. As one woman puts it, "We just have to put faith in the intel that these people are doing wrong." Another one insists, "To be honest, it's not our place to question," referring to the war and the government's actions.
What they do question, however, is why they seem to be missing from accounts of the Iraq war. Because they aren't technically supposed to be engaging in direct combat, the military is reluctant to bring any kind of light to the Lioness teams. At one point, one of the women has her former Lioness teammates over to watch a History channel special on a particular mission they were a part of, one that was incredibly violent and gruesome, and there is no mention whatsoever about the women who fought alongside the male soldiers. There are, however, plenty of references to the "brave men" who faced this particular ordeal. This ignoring of the women's contributions seems to be at the painful heart of Lioness. As the movie's tag line puts it, "There for the action. Missing from history." Though it's not an easy movie to watch, it is an important film, as everyone should be aware of the actions and sacrifices of these courageous women.