The Invisible War (2012)
Kirby Dick is a documentary filmmaker known for picking fights with powerful institutions that operate in secrecy. In the Oscar-nominated Twist of Faith, he scrutinized the abuses of the Catholic Church covering up for sexual predators. In 2006’s This Film is Not Yet Rated, he hunted down the then-unknown members of the MPAA ratings board and delivered an overwhelming critique of their ratings hypocrisies. With The Invisible War, Dick has taken on a subject that’s even more powerful. The Invisible War, which won some awards at the Sundance film festival, examines the rampant numbers of sexual assaults and rape within the military. Through extensive, emotionally draining interviews and enraging statistics, Dick shows that most of the victims, when courageous enough to report their abuse, are met with skepticism, contempt, and injustice. One interview subject says that being raped isn’t what makes her angry the most: “It’s the commanders that were complicit in covering up everything that happened.” This is a shocking, sobering, and eye-opening documentary that deserves to be seen by every American. You owe it to the brave men and women who serve this country, to see this movie. The ugly truth needs to come out and be finally dealt with.
The upsetting statistics of sexual abuse within the military come from the Department of Defense, not an advocacy group, but our own government. Here are some of the most devastating stats:
-20 percent of all women in the military have been sexually assaulted and/or raped while serving.
-Women are twice as likely to be raped in the military rather than outside it.
-Military sexual assault/rape victims have a higher rate of PTSD than soldiers who have fought in combat.
This is a profoundly revolting, morally repugnant, and infuriating story presented with damning testimonials clear-eyed logic. When I left the theater, I was radiating unquenchable fury. You could have harnessed my rage as an alternative resource. A lot of people blithely say they support the troops but we as a nation are letting these brave men and women down. The system is letting these people down, protecting rapists, training them to be better rapists, and then setting them loose upon the civilian population to continue their heinous crimes (it’s estimated the average sexual predator commits 300 acts in his or her lifetime). Listening to these heartbreaking stories can be grueling, but it is vital to listen. The women speak with such candor and bravery, befitting those ready to lay down their lives out of service for this country. But lest you believe this is merely a “women’s issue,” the film has a few interviews with male victims as well. With men outnumbering women six to one in the military, men are the majority of the victims of sexual abuse, a fact I doubt many would have known. As the experts attest, for an organization that rewards machismo, the shame for men can be compounded by the rampant homophobia within the American military culture.
It’s sadly understandable that so many of the interview subjects contemplated or attempted suicide. “Suicide or AWOL, those are your only two real options,” a military investigator laments. According to TIME’s investigative report, one Iraq and/or Afghanistan veteran commits suicide every day in America. Now remember that stat above concerning PTSD, and think about what the suicide rate must be like for victims of sexual abuse. One military man, husband to a rape victim, breaks down in sobs recounting his phone call for help while he tried to stop his wife from taking her own life. Watching proud, grown men break down into tears when they try and make sense of their institution harming their wives or daughters, it’s heartbreaking all its own. These veterans would not advise any woman to consider a career in the military, not when this is the sorry state of justice.
These victims were often handled with apathetic, callous, or downright hostile behavior, often being blamed for being attacked. These victims risked their careers to report their abuses, expecting some semblance of justice, and many times they were simply ignored or punished for “making waves.” One interview subject talks about how her commanding officer related that he had heard about three rape accusations that week and incredulously asked if the women were all in cahoots. One woman was raped and then charged with adultery; she wasn’t married but her rapist was, though he was never brought up on charges. Dick’s documentary lays a clear argument that giving the commanding officers, people often without any legal training whatsoever, the power to prosecute cases leads to plenty of ignored abuses. In 2010, the military reported 3,158 reports of sexual abuse (remember that 80 percent of cases generally go unreported), but only one-sixth of those cases lead to a court martial and only 175 of the assailants served jail time. And when they do serve jail time, it’s often knocked down to mere weeks. That way, the convicted serviceman doesn’t get charged with a felony. This also means when they leave the military, the convicted sexual offender does not have to register with a national sex offender database. When investigations do arise, they are routinely stonewalled.
What emerges from this inflammatory documentary is that the command’s response wasn’t to protect the victims but to protect the accused, time and again. These commanders are supposed to be objective and impartial arbitrators, but this is hardly the case. It’s all about saving face, and a commander looks bad when he has a rapist in his unit, so rather than expel and punish the rapist, the military often drops the case and punishes the victim. Sometimes the commanding officer the victims are supposed to report the abuse to was in fact the perpetrator. In those instances, the victims have no possible path to justice. Major General Mary Kay Kellogg, Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (DOSAPRO), said victims could appeal to the Defense Department’s Attorney General, hence going over their commander’s head. Except that of the almost 3,000 cases sent to the DOD AG, not a single case was ever prosecuted. Kellogg also absurdly suggests that victims petition their Congressman. Just imagine a civilian being raped and told, “Better ask your Congressman if you want justice.”
The response to the systemic abuses has been ineffectual. The military response was to raise awareness, not sift out rapists from the ranks and protect their own soldiers from sexual predators. The ad campaign to raise awareness is jaw-dropping, with slogans like, “Wait til she’s sober,” and a horrendously ear-splitting rap song about sexual assault prevention. It’s so bad you can almost feel the seething resentment of the military. There’s also an informative video with a dramatization of a woman, fleeing helplessly after a man tries to touch her (the fact that this dramatization makes the woman look silly is intentional, me thinks). This woman runs into another serviceman who admonishes her, “Where’s your buddy?” The implication is that women should know that they can be raped at any time unless accompanied by a buddy. Does this not imply that every man in the military is capable of rape at the drop of a hat? And what if that buddy ends up being your rapist? The military builds a greater sense of camaraderie, and the men and women in uniform feel like a family. As one interview subject notes, when one soldier rapes another, it is akin to a crime of incest, a betrayal of that family. One victim was told she brought on the sexual harassment because of what she was wearing… which just happened to be her military uniform.
Dick’s film is obviously advocating a very specific side, but who cares about the idea of presenting balance given the subject? The Department of Defense spokespersons and their rote, officious responses are edited for some major points of baffled, incredulous laughter, as we contrast their company line with the testimonials of the men and women they failed to protect. Again, I return to the notion that not every story has two sides. What exactly is the other side in this epidemic of abuses? What possibly could the merits of the other side be, the status quo? This is not just some anti-military screed. In fact, many of the participants speak so highly of the ideals of the military, the duty to serve, and their genuine feelings of belonging to these hallowed institutions. This makes their disillusionment all the more distressing. Almost every interview subject has a military background, some discharged and some retired, and the movie presents its claims with clear, level evidence. The testimonials are so damming, the abuses so clearly documented, the obfuscation from justice so repeatedly maintained, that I cannot even fathom a second side to this story. When it comes to sexual assault, there is only one side to this issue.
Dick also doesn’t overplay the obvious emotional appeals in the film. There is plenty, but he doesn’t sensationalize the drama or amplify the emotions in a self-serving manner. Instead, the film looks to clearly examine a systematic problem. Rather than deal only with potent outrage, Dick’s film is also a call to action with some strong ideas on how to better protect the victims of sexual abuses. Set up an independent system of justice outside of the commanders’ control, and work on preventing rapists from joining the military rather than cutting down the possibilities of how women can be raped. How about we punish the guilty party?
Last year, a group of veterans who had been sexually abused, initiated a class-action lawsuit against the military. This suit was dismissed by the court because, in their words, rape was an “occupational hazard of military service.” Reread that sentence again. Let it sink in. Now ask yourself is that at all acceptable given the values we profess for our country? The culture within the military is simply that rape and sexual abuses are just not that big of a deal (a Congresswoman admits that the Defense AG told her they have “other, higher priorities” to worry about), and so it all continues. The implication is that for the military to function, you’re going to have to excuse some excess, that excess being an estimated 30,000 sexual assaults a year. I’d like the military brass to explain to me what number would be unacceptable. How prevalent do these abuses need to be before proper action is taken, and not some facile PR, face-saving empty gesture, but something real? To me, one rape is one too many.
Dick’s excoriating advocacy documentary is powerful, furious, but sensitive to the victims and their horrifying ordeals. It declares that we can and should do better. In April, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta watched The Invisible War and two days later made some changes. He took the decision to prosecute away from the commanders. It’s a start, but there’s a long way to go to fixing the military’s patronizing view of women. The movie opens with a series of advertisements targeted at women through the years, and the treatment is astoundingly patronizing and the film’s only spot of bleak humor. At one point, one of the victims asks if she and her fellow victims hypothetically deserve purple hearts for being wounded in battle too. “We’re never going to get anything,” another replies. These victims deserve recognition and justice, which has long been denied them. You won’t see a more challenging, infuriating, and compelling documentary of this year. It’s hard to watch at many points, and I cried at five separate occasions, but this is a movie that needs to be watched. I invite all readers to visit the Not Invisible site and consider joining the advocacy of this noble cause. You say you support the troops? Prove it.
Nate’s Grade: A