All words: Alan Pyke
Why does the military systematically betray the absolute trust it inculcates in its recruits, when faced with sexual assault allegations by blaming the victims and protecting perpetrators? How can the same military that depends upon women and aggressively recruits them allow serial rapists and predators in its ranks? How is it that the epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. Military has gone un- or under-examined for decades?
The Invisible War cannot answer all of the questions it raises, but by asking them at all–and exploring them with unflinching resolve–it does more for survivors of military sexual assault in 90 minutes than our armed forces appear to have done, well, ever.
Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s urgent new documentary opens with a montage of newsreel and recruiting ad footage showing how the military talks about its female soldiers. Then we meet several of them and hear about their various paths from childhood to service. We hear these women talk about moving from the relative comfort of basic training to their first posts, where each was the only woman in her new unit. We hear them talk about feeling like meat. And we hear about their experiences being assaulted, harassed, raped, and threatened by their brothers in arms and their commanding officers. We see Coast Guard veteran Kori Cioca cover her stovetop with bottles of medication for the physical and mental trauma she’s endured, and we see fight the Department of Veterans Affairs.
After introducing the half-dozen women whose stories carry the film, the filmmakers communicate just how widespread this problem is by jumping from the initial group of faces to a montage of dozens of women we haven’t seen before telling snippets of very similar stories.
It’s an effective anecdotal way to illustrate the epidemic nature of this problem. Anecdotes are not data, of course, but the film has plenty of numbers too. At least one in five women in the military are sexually assaulted during their service. An estimated 80 percent of survivors do not report their assaults. Forty percent of homeless female veterans were raped during their service. In raw numbers of cases, there have been more men sexually assaulted by their fellow soldiers than women. Fifteen percent of military recruits attempted or committed rape prior to joining up. Survivors of military rape have a higher incidence of PTSD than do combat veterans.
The Department of Defense is aware of all these numbers. Many of them are published in an report the DoD releases in the week between Christmas and New Years each year. Yet the film reveals a systematic bias against accusers, and the absurd denials of such a problem from the Pentagon officials interviewed only serve to underscore that point. (One in particular, a Rear Admiral Kurta, blinks so rapidly and fiercely that it’s easy to think he doesn’t believe what he’s saying.)
The film catalogs past incidents that made national news and sparked narrow investigations without creating the systemic change that is needed. These specific scandals have been treated, by the military and the media alike, as one-offs. And when the hot lights of scandal are off, the military’s disciplinary system utterly fails to properly handle assault allegations. Retired Army Sgt. Myla Haider, a former military criminal investigator and a rape survivor, has seen the failings of these internal investigative processes from within. “All the things they put in place are about helping women deal with rape better,” Haider says. At every turn, authority figures discount the allegations of victims and even court martial them for adultery, all while protecting serial abusers.
The film stresses repeatedly that this is a small minority of servicemembers committing these assaults over and over again. It’s by no means an anti-military film–quite the opposite. It chronicles how the chain of command mishandles assault allegations, and is appropriately appalled at the scale of the problem and the brutality of these individual stories, but it is a call for remedy, not destruction. And it just might be the most important film of the year.