Five years ago, like all Americans, we watched reports of the invasion of Iraq. We were struck by a recurring footnote that emerged in the press. It wasn’t just young men who were fighting, it was young women too—wives, mothers, sisters, daughters.
It soon became clear to us that a turning point had been reached. The rise of the insurgency had obliterated the notion of a front line and the support units in which women serve were increasingly in the line of fire. As a result, the official U.S. policy banning female soldiers from serving in direct ground combat was being severely tested, if not violated, on a regular basis. This war was changing the face of America’s combat warrior; it was no longer exclusively male. Intrigued, we wondered who were these women serving in our name? What was it like for them to be on the cutting edge of history in the midst of such a complex unpopular war? While the reality of the changing role of female soldiers was playing itself out on the ground in Iraq, here at home the image of the female soldier stagnated in the public imagination, polarized between Jessica Lynch at one extreme and Lynndie England at the other.
Recognizing this disconnect, our goal as filmmakers was to find a story that would capture the provocative nature of this historic shift. At the same time, the narrative needed to be powerful enough to create a space in the national cultural dialogue for the women’s voices to be heard. After doing some research, we learned about a group of female support soldiers, members of “Team Lioness,” who by any reckoning were breaking new ground and rewriting the rules.
When we first met up with the Lioness women, they had already been back in the U.S. for over a year and it was clear that what they had experienced in Iraq was only part of the story. The rest was unfolding in their lives as they confronted the reality that they were called upon to do, the one thing they were told they could never do: engage in direct combat. And they were asked to do so precisely because they were female.
Because neither of us come from military backgrounds, we approached our subjects with an attitude of discovery. We did not assume that we knew what life was like for them and remained open to understanding their world and its logic. As we listened to their combat stories, what emerged was a tale that touches on the universal horror of war but one told from a female perspective.
One of the things we learned during our three years of filming was that the grey zone, in which this first group and subsequent Lioness groups operate in, can lead to serious consequences, including leaving commanders having to choose between expediency and efficiency as well as following a policy that is ill-suited to the demands of the modern battlefield.
The practice of attaching women on a temporary basis to all male units is a convenient loophole that enables commanders on the ground to reduce violence without violating policy. But because it does not create a paper trail, it can limit a female soldier’s ability to be officially recognized as a combatant, which prevents them from advancing up the ranks and assuming meaningful leadership roles within the military hierarchy. This in turn inhibits their ability to shape national policy. Proof of having served in combat is also important for determining benefits available to veterans. Without documentation, it is harder for women to get the help they need for combat-related trauma.
It is our hope that LIONESS can contribute to a discussion of these issues and help us all to remember those who have served and who continue to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.