the invisible war

Movie Review: The Invisible War Shines Light on Sexual Assault in the Military

Photo: Cinedigm/Docurama Films

Kirby Dick is our most righteous “outer.” I don’t mean he likes to out gays, although he certainly targeted the more virulent right-wing homophobes in his eye-opening documentary Outrage. I mean that, for Dick, the world is full of dark closets packed not with skeletons but bloodsuckers who’d shrivel if someone would only shine a light in their direction.

He can’t quite do that in his galvanizing new documentary The Invisible War. The subject is the U.S. armed forces, the villains the alleged sexual predators who operate without restraint or punishment. To name names or venture onto bases for “ambush” interviews would open himself up to libel suits or worse. But he can do the next best thing. He interviews women who’ve emerged from those dark recesses, women who represent the 20 percent of female vets (that’s a low-ball estimate — we might be talking about half a million people) who’ve been sexually assaulted while serving. Using statistics compiled by the U.S. government itself, The Invisible War makes the case that this is not a “problem” but a bona fide plague.

A lot of the film consists of women sitting in chairs telling the kinds of stories that make tears not drop but surge from their eyes —and our blood boil. After a while, their words blur together:

He was my superior …. Drinking buddies … drugged and raped … gonorrhea … pregnant … dislocated my jaw … locked in a hotel room … If I said anything they were going to kill me … “You’re meat on a slab”… He said, “I own all of this”…

The vet whose jaw was dislocated makes call after call (and one long-distance visit) to Veterans Administration, which puts off a decision on her injuries (physical and mental) for a year and a half before saying, essentially, “Not our problem.” Of course, the VA isn’t doing too well on the PR front in general, having just been scolded for neglect of every soldier’s PTSD. The real horror is how commanders respond to complaints of assault and rape.

they lost the rape kit … they investigated me for making false statements … they charged me with adultery and I wasn’t married, he was … they promoted him …

The problem, Dick reports, is that 15 percent of male recruits have had accusations made against them for rape and assault. So they’ve already got issues and here they are in a culture known for pervasive S & M rituals, alpha-male behaviors, and rampant alcohol abuse. Victims tell of being ordered to go out drinking and ordered to do shots — whereupon they were pounced on by their superiors and, after filing complaints, reprimanded for heavy drinking. It’s Kafkaesque.

The clueless civilian Bush appointee (she responds to many of Dick’s questions with blank stares) maintains that the answer is prevention, which here consists of advising women to walk around with buddies and screening films in which men are advised to “WAIT UNTIL SHE’S SOBER.” Her successor, who’s at least in uniform, takes a similar line. Both dismiss the notion that commanders who are in many cases drinking buddies of the accused (or who are the accused) should not have unfettered discretion when it comes to prosecuting accused predators. The message is, “That’s not a factor,” and “We’ll handle it.”

 Late in The Invisible War, a group of victims goes to Congress and hear sympathetic noises from some of its members (Democratic and Republican). They also take their case to a civilian court, which finds against them on the grounds that “rape is an occupational hazard in the military.” I didn’t make that up. Nor did Dick make up any of the statistics that have made his case before he even turns his camera on women violated first by sexual predators and then by their institutional enablers. Given the ongoing revelations about the Catholic Church, New York’s Orthodox Jewish community, and the U.S. military, the best course of action seems to be not to join a club in which the leaders are males who are accountable only to themselves.

“What now?” you think, after a coda reporting that none of the accused rapists of the women (and one man) Dick has interviewed have been imprisoned — and that some have risen in the ranks. The answer comes quickly, in a coda to the coda that might be unprecedented: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta screened The Invisible War and promptly ordered authority for investigating accusations of sexual assault taken away from commanding officers. After watching the movie, is where you should go to see the aftershocks in the halls of Congress and the barracks.

 I can hardly wait to see which closet Dick will throw open next.

Invisible War Examines Military Sexual Assault