Not that I walked into a documentary on military sexual assault with certain expectations, but The Invisible War surprised me on several levels, not just with how much of an epidemic this problem is. Over 20% of female veterans have been sexually assaulted during their service. That number is staggering. To put it into perspective, the Spanish Flu pandemic (Downton Abbey, anyone?) that took out a chunk of the population in 1918 killed about 3% of the affected populations, and that was devastating enough. So for 20% of female veterans to have lived through such an ordeal is not only devastating, it clearly reflects severe institutional dysfunctions.
One of the most surprising and refreshing things about this film is its respect for the military. There is no political bias, no stance on pacifism vs. war-mongering, no politicizing of what the military stands for. Recruits are given the utmost respect for their choice to serve, and through the voices of survivors it becomes easy to understand why they enlisted. Each woman went into service because of a sincere passion to serve her country and do her duty, and regardless of what you think of the military, it’s hard not to respect someone so wiling to dedicate themselves to a greater cause and to a life of service. Which is what makes it even more heart wrenching when, through each story, we see how this idealism is shattered: brutally, forcefully, and remorselessly.
What is truly stunning is the unsympathetic, deliberately inefficient reaction of military personnel to each woman’s situation. The Invisible War outlines an internal culture in which archaic patriarchal norms make it almost impossible for a rapist to be persecuted, or for a rape survivor to find justice. The film follows one survivor who suffered such intense facial trauma that she requires surgery. After almost two years in a bureaucratic nightmare, she is denied the surgery she needs on grounds that don’t apply to her, which isn’t even surprising given that when she had gone in for a scheduled jaw x-ray, it couldn’t be done because it had been scheduled for the incorrect body part. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Eastern Europe in the 80s, but I guess I was naïve enough to think that this kind of bureaucratic insanity was reserved for Soviet satellite states of yore.
More infuriating, though, is seeing the layers of patriarchal apathy that prevent each woman from justice. Each woman featured in this documentary has an assailant who has not only gone unpunished, but many went on receive military accolades. One sexually assaulted a woman at his business after becoming a civilian. Several women’s cases were “mistakenly” closed, only to have charges of lewd conduct and adultery brought against them – both women accused of adultery were single at the time of their assault, and their attackers were married. I don’t want to get too crazy here, but isn’t that what we’re condemning countries like Iran for doing to women? I’m just saying. And don’t think the old “she was asking for it” line hasn’t been used in any of these cases. It just sounds even more ludicrous when it is directed at a military uniform being too provocative.
15% of new recruits have a history of sexual assault, so clearly the military isn’t doing background checks. To his credit, two days after seeing this film, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta took the decision to prosecute away from military commanders, which was an important step. Imagine being sexually assaulted and having no police to go to, only your rapist’s drinking buddies, or your rapist himself. The measures the military has taken are flimsy at best. A training video telling women to use the buddy system will probably be effective, especially for women who are the only female in a remote outpost. Putting the burden on women to protect themselves instead of on men doesn’t seem problematic at all, right? To be fair, there is a message for men as well: “ask her when she’s sober.” Because all women are drunken sorority girls just waiting for a penis man to come along, it’s just common courtesy for men to be polite about it. Way to respect ladies in uniform, army training video!
The most surprising thing about The Invisible War for me was the interview with a male survivor of sexual assault. While proportionally less frequent, in terms of actual numbers of people, more men are subject to sexual assault in the military than women. And because of that staunch patriarchal culture of masculinity, men have the added burden of a kind of fear and shame that women don’t deal with. Of course, women have plenty of their own shame and devastation to bear, and if anything, this film is an accurate portrayal of the ways in which a single event, a single assault, can shake a person to their core and damage them for a lifetime. While the military was busy freaking out over Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, they ignored the fact that most assailants in male sexual assault cases are heterosexual men. I guess that’s what you get when you create a rapist friendly environment.
Which is exactly what the military has done. So few rapists ever serve time, while so many of their targets are punished, that the predatory nature of a sex offender is practically hand-fed. Once done with their service, these men are free to continue preying in civilian society, and often do.
I’m not going to ruin the film for you, I’ve only skimmed the surface here. While this story is intense and jarring, the film manages to convey it in a powerful and encouraging way. Even before its release it has already accomplished change in Congress. While investigative journalism keeps decreasing (CNN and FoxNews have to put their efforts into making sure you know what goes into your yogurt, of course), documentaries like this are picking up the slack. The best thing we can do to help others is just to simply be involved in the conversation. Whether that means going to see this film, taking five seconds to tweet about it, or liking their Facebook page, all of those numbers count. The best defense against rape we, as a society, have is putting the blame and the shame on perpetrators. So giving a film like this support means adding important numbers to the ranks of those who stand against sexual assault, which in turn puts pressure on the people responsible to exact justice on those who deserve it. And that is change.
The Invisible War opens today in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington DC. You can get tickets HERE