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The Invisible War

June 23, 2012
The Invisible War

It’s a male-dominated culture, defined by men and, despite official statements, women really aren’t accepted as full equals. In many enclaves sexual harassment is tolerated if not outright condoned by those in charge. Authoritarian mindsets are selected for and violent temperaments are not filtered out, leading to an epidemic of rape and other sexual violence. And when the victims complain, they are more likely to be punished than their attackers. This is not some backwards, middle-east theocracy, but the United States military, as painted by Kirby Dick in The Invisible War.

Now, I need to be clear before I get too much hate mail: this is only one, thin view of the military as a whole. The vast majority of servicemembers are honorable men and women, some of whom I am proud to number among my friends.

Dick is careful to include statements that the United States has a good military, but that one of the things that prevents it from becoming a truly great one is a willingness to countenance this sort of behavior and to sweep it under the rug. It doesn’t even take malice on the part of the sweepers; it’s just so much easier to look the other way, or to go through the motions, convincing yourself that you’re not really part of the problem.

The bulk of the film is structured around the civil case brought by Susan Burke against the Department of Defense on behalf of a number of victims of military sexual assault, and around some of these victims brave enough to stand up before Dick’s cameras and testify not only to their attacks, but to the repercussions they deal with to this day.

And these are not inconsiderable; one might expect the psychological fallout of any rape, and that’s awful enough on its own. But here it’s compounded by the betrayal of one’s fellow servicemembers, not to mention an institutional pattern of shame and dismissal. Even the organization within the military in charge of addressing sexual assaults treats the problem more as one that women can prevent by taking better precautions, which tactic has been all but ejected from civilian courts.

And then there are the physical effects. Sexual assaults are assaults, after all, and they can and do cause injuries. I don’t believe that these injuries are being intentionally ignored, but with the Veterans Health Administration stretched as thin as it is already, they tend to fall through the cracks like any other. After all, if your commanding officer strikes you so hard across the face as to cause nerve damage in your jaw, well that’s not really combat-related, is it? No reason for the VA to pay your medical bills there.

It’s these survivors’ stories that provide the film’s solid emotional counterpunch; they deserve praise for being willing to speak up. Their families — their fathers, husbands, wives, and children, many of them servicemembers or veterans themselves — help communicate a taste of how the horror spills out to everyone around. And Dick records them with a genuine sense of compassion.

But these stories go to pathos; they could easily be among the most egregious examples. To really understand the problem we need to turn to statistics, which Dick helpfully draws from the military’s own records and reports. In an average fiscal year, there are well over three thousand reports of military sexual assaults. Given the underreporting rate, this means over sixteen thousand actual incidents; one out of every five servicewomen will experience such an attack.

As for how the incidents are dealt with, there’s a stunning flowchart that Ms. Burke walks through in the film: out of 3,230 reported incidents in fiscal 2009, only 158 rapists can be shown to have served a single day in confinement for their crimes. The numbers are almost unbelievable, but one of Ms. Burke’s assistants pointed me towards the annual reports of the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. In the fiscal 2011 report, the 2011 chart is on page 32. I would advise not reading the enclosures and their nauseating capsule descriptions; the chart itself provides bile enough, with entries about how many cases did not proceed to disciplinary action because the “victim died before completion of military justice action”, which evidently excuses the offense.

Dick slides back and forth between these two sides — the emotional testimony and the statistical assessments — to great effect, and salts them both with commentaries from attorneys and experts, exploring various aspects of the problem as a whole. This provides the texture needed to really focus on a problem that might otherwise seem too large and amorphous to get hold of.

You might, for instance, be able to ignore the emotional appeals of a handful of women, and also able to look past statistics as so many numbers. But you cannot help but feel the injustice when faced with the fact that much of the disposition of a rape victim’s complaints are directed to her commander, who often has a close working relationship with her rapist, and often sees personal career incentives against seeking a conviction. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta certainly couldn’t; two days after seeing this film he changed that policy.

Progress can be made, but there is a long way to go. When he dismissed Burke’s suit last December, U.S. District Court Judge Liam O’Grady upheld the argument that rape is an occupational hazard for women in the military, the way black lung is for coal miners. Viewing rape as “just something that happens” won’t change until the institutional culture changes, and that won’t happen until a lot more people get a lot more angry.

Well, after watching The Invisible War I’m angry. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it makes its points clearly and effectively, and I hope it will make you just as angry. And for some, seeing these brave women speak out publicly will let them know they’re not alone.

Worth It: absolutely; essential, even.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, pass.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. Hunt permalink
    June 24, 2012 07:19

    The whole US military has a history of institutional evil. It does things when it is required to; it moves when it is compelled to do so. The people can be good. The institution is of historical amorality, as in the distinction between good and evil makes no difference except at a purely bureaucratic level. In other words, it is an evil institution. History records this in things like atom bomb testing with civilian fallout, and so on. That is, the US military historically has not even recognized accountability with respect to the civilians who ultimately fund it. Things haven’t changed all that much since Rome.

  2. Ryan permalink
    September 12, 2012 10:01

    “3,230 reported incidents in fiscal 2009, only 158 rapists can be shown to have served a single day ”

    Unless you claim that you know better than US judiciary system – we seem to have staggering 95.2% of false/unsubstantiated rape claims by women in the uniform. I feel bad for all the guys whose lives were ruined be these false rape claims.

    • September 12, 2012 14:34

      While I agree that the numbers don’t exactly add up to rape cases being swept under the rug, they also don’t add up to 95.2% false claims. Since rapist are often serial offenders it is quite possible that those 158 rapists account for more than one incident each. As the author said many cases are not pursued because the “victim died before completion of military justice action.” Though I’m not too familiar with military courts I am going to assume like in the civilian judicial processes it is hard to get a conviction without the victim’s testimony. Factor in a little corruption, the fact that there is legal precedent ruling rape an occupational hazard for soldiers and it would seem that most of these claims probably aren’t false. Now again I won’t put all the blame on the military, like I said if a victim dies (unless they were murdered) it’s extremely hard to pursue their case after death, especially in instance of rape/sexual assault.

    • Andrea permalink
      September 12, 2012 14:42

      The military judiciary system is not the same as the rest of the US judiciary system. For another example see article 134, on Adultery.

  3. September 12, 2012 10:05

    It takes a remarkably willful blindness to believe that the only way a claim can run aground is for it to be false. Follow the link I provided to the SAPR reports — the military’s own documentation — and see for yourself.

  4. James Wood permalink
    September 12, 2012 14:11

    Much of this is self-inflicted, on the gender level I mean.
    The reason it is often dismissed or ignored is a large number of unscrupulous women have figured out that a false harassment or rape charge will remove an obstruction in their path.
    When constantly bombarded by these claims, you have to accept two outcomes:
    1) The military on a whole develops an attitude about the issue.
    2) In the sheer volume of false claims, a real claim will get treated the same way.

    The whole issue needs to be changed. Harsher (or ANY, for that matter) repercussions for false claims, and proper treatment of true perpetrators. These goals have to be met in the middle, as both are at extreme ends of a vast gulf. A gulf that the lazy and ambitious dug for the rest of their gender.

    • Andrea permalink
      September 12, 2012 14:44

      The reasons that it is dismissed or ignored are because of women, not because the military has a vested interest in not investigating and prosecuting the rapes. Got it.

  5. September 12, 2012 14:49

    Welcome to those coming from Reddit. I’m going to turn off the moderation requirement so I don’t have to approve new people by hand while I’m out this afternoon/evening.

    • Satan Smith permalink
      September 12, 2012 19:53

      Knowing a thing or two about reddit, I would have just left the mod req on.

  6. Ulysses73 permalink
    September 12, 2012 15:57

    A guy who served in the US Army in Iraq (Staff Sergeant Mejia) wrote in his book that some female colleagues died due to dehydration; they were afraid to use the toilets at night because they knew they would be raped – so didn’t take on enough water.

    The book was called ‘Road From Ar-Ramadi.’

  7. Angry Voter permalink
    September 12, 2012 17:25

    For the party members who claim the rapes are fake – are the suicides fake too?

    The US loses more soldiers to suicide than to enemy fire.

    Furthermore, US civilians are more likely to be killed by the police than by terrorists.

    Do you know who your real enemies are?

    • Satan Smith permalink
      September 12, 2012 19:54

      Yeah, my enemies are hippies they say they want clean air but always go around smelling everything up.

  8. September 12, 2012 17:45

    Some rape accusations are true, and the perpetrater is never punished.
    Some rape accusations are lies, and the accuser is never punished.

    If either of these statements makes you angry, you might be an idiot.

  9. Ridoancer permalink
    September 12, 2012 19:31

    Redditor here. As a female member of the US Military, rape has been the number one issue stressed since the day I joined. It’s all about what we can do to not be raped (i.e. don’t go outside after dark without a wingman, be careful of who you hang out with, etc). What I would love to see are classes the males go through on not raping women. I have many female friends in the military, and only one of them (to my knowledge) has been harassed. However, take a female on to an active duty base/post and just listen to the harassment they go through. It’s terrible. It’s most definitely a rape culture, and I’d dearly love to see it change.

    • September 12, 2012 19:46

      Thanks for sharing that perspective. The film definitely raises the point that emphasizing defensive actions — while useful — still carries the subtext that the responsibility and blame is on the women to not be attacked, rather than on the men not to attack.

  10. 24 year veteran permalink
    September 13, 2012 15:24

    I am just wondering how the rapist or the one who protects the the rapist would feel if his wife or daughter would be raped. Would it be considered by the judge and them as an occupational hazard?

  11. Richard Molinski permalink
    June 6, 2013 00:03

    The Invisible War
    The movie The Invisible War is troublesome. An honest evaluation of the movie suggests that many of the women interviewed have secondary gain in mind and probably lawsuits with money probably plenty of it to be made in disabilities by saying that every pill every pain they have every restriction they have comes from the issue of sexual assault. Certainly there’s plenty of documentary type objective interviews with qualified experts but the general tone of the movie is manipulative and not journalism. You’re probably going to say that I’m some kind of big and I don’t know any better. I’m not going to make excuses and give a long story about those that I know who have been raped and what they’ve been through except to say that many have come out from their traumatic experiences with the strength that comes when the will that helps one to rise from adversity to triumph. Am I my endorsing sexual assault is a mechanism to personal growth? Certainly not but the movie The Invisible War leaves all of these women still in their grief and anger and without hope that brings joy and peace and happiness over the course of a person’s life. It’s an anger movie that takes the anger of sexual assault and then re-victimizes the women by spreading their anger out to be used as fodder for a media eager to make money off people’s pain and suffering and foolishly suggest that these women will be happy once their perpetrators are in jail or they have their lawsuit payoffs. Anger feeding anger gets nowhere.
    Have we lost our senses and completely forgotten the purpose of the military which is to the fight the nation’s wars to defend the Constitution with the lives of the citizens that have taken oaths to do so and which necessarily attracts or creates an unusual kind of person that is willing to go in harm’s way recognizing that the next bullet could be for them unless they deliver one one second sooner than that of their adversary. Anyone that studies history or watches movies or reads books about war or soldiers knows that this is so. Therefore the culture of war making as awful as it is and yet as necessary as it seems to be must exist in a sacred environment that is untouched by the public’s general right to make judgments about other people’s behavior. Not one of you reading this wants a soldier who doesn’t have to grit to cross “the thin red line” as stated in Richard Kipling’s poem, “Tommy” and do his duty. Their sacrifice ensures your comfort and security.
    Then it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that, and “Tommy, own your soul”?
    But it’s “thin red line of heroes, when the drums begin to roll.
    The drums begin to roll, by boys, the drums begin to roll.
    O it’s “thin red line of heroes” when the drums begin to roll.
    That is to say we can’t be turning men into women or boys and the girls because if the military is populated by emasculated males we are all doomed. If you put men and women together in close proximity in the kinds of environment that military personnel often find themselves away from home in unusually stressful circumstances their untethered passions on both sides of the hormone spectrum will come to play in a war that occurs between men and women that are not restrained by religious mores and sexual assault is eventual. I have been deployed to a war zone and watch this happen where foolish leaders housed men and women in close proximity and it’s no wonder that babies were made and love was in the air and jealousies occurred because of the power of human sexual chemistry.
    I hope and pray that there are very few times in my lifetime when I or someone that I love has to cross that thin red line but by God if I have to I want a real Tommy with me.

    Richard Molinski
    June 2013

  12. June 6, 2013 07:43

    You’re certainly welcome to your opinion, Mr. Molinski.

    I would like to believe that soldiers have more discipline than to run wild and free with their every impulse, but you seem to believe that sexual assault is inevitable, and if women and men are in close proximity the men simply have no choice but to sexually assault and rape their female comrades. I, myself, have had many close female friends and have managed to avoid raping any of them, though I must admit I have not been put under the stress of combat which evidently excuses all manner of brutality.

    What of the men who are raped? Though proportionally fewer, there are actually numerically more of them in the military than women. Once we send the women “back where they belong”, are those men still simply getting what they deserve?

    And what of Lt. Col. Krusinski, whom the Air Force put in charge of stemming the tide of sexual violence in that service, only to find him out committing these same assaults. His victim was not in a combat zone with him, so that mealy-mouthed excuse for his behavior doesn’t really work. How, now, will we find some new way to shut our eyes to a deep-seated misogyny within the military?

    Lastly, documentary film is not journalism, it is rhetoric. To claim that The Invisible War is “not journalism” is merely to recognize the deep and serious flaws in one’s own position and to go crying how unfair it all is, like a bully finding his own nose bloodied for the very first time.


  1. Fun Fact: US court upheld the argument that rape is an occupational hazard of military service. | Twat Kickers!!
  2. The Invisible War — Here it is

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