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.