The American military has largely dealt with the sexual assault of more than 95,000 service members since 2006 by stonewalling, denial, blaming the victims, and worse, according to Kirby Dick’s horrific and essential new film.
I’d had my concerns about Kirby Dick covering this material: his This Film is Not Yet Rated was a snarky swipe at the MPAA that was entirely too in love with itself and its clever graphics. In this film, save a very occasional lapse into inappropriately cool-looking statistics, Dick’s baser instincts and any unfortunate slide into Michael Moore-like ‘liberal’ self righteousness are utterly consumed by the urgency of the task at hand.
To the point where we experience a sort of horror-driven vertigo, The Invisible War provides hundreds of ex-service members a place to tell of their defilement by people they’d trusted with their lives. Even as it explores every conceivable reason behind the grotesque failure to address this ultimate crime, the film refuses to go anti-military, mirroring the across-the-board POV of female ex-soldiers who, despite their rape, still respect the uniform.
This is mainly a film of faces, with Dick cutting away only when needed—to courtrooms, clinics, Congress people, and others who won’t help, along with news clips of recent and mostly forgotten military sexual travesties for context. The relative asceticism gives War the apt hush of genocide.
Dick’s assembled a core group of women. There’s Kori, Coast Guard. Jessica, US Air Force. Robin, USAF. Ariana, Marines. Trina, Navy. Elle, Marines. Hannah, Marines.
Each tells of their love and pride of country and service. Each then describes having that love obliterated and stolen from them by their perpetrator, who most likely goes unpunished.
Dick takes a blowtorch to any notion that rape is anything else but a crime of violence and power by repeatedly focusing on the unspeakably painful physical brutalization of these young peoples’ bodies.
One woman’s spine is broken. Other women have broken bones elsewhere. Kirby focuses on Kori, a short ash blond spitfire whose jaw was crushed in her rape to the point that she can only eat Jell-O, pudding and other soft foods, as a sort of guide through the slow burn hell her perpetrator has turned her life into.
As her jaw problems worsen, the VA offers help with a back condition she doesn’t have. (Catch-22 lives.) Her husband—like all the spouses seen here—does everything humanly possible to help, and as his life is consumed by that endless job, the rapist claims another victim by proxy.
We meet woman after woman after woman, each with a story of love, service, rape, and betrayal by the military family she thought had her back. Watching these women’s’ faces and voices fuse as they all tell one extended story of incomprehensible soul-rending transgression is like hearing Jung’s collective consciousness screaming J’accuse.
Dick attacks every angle of this rotten story. His talking heads are all high-ranking, no-nonsense ex-military or thought leaders who exude zero-bias competence. As with other victims who hide behind screens and electronic distortion, unearthed official documents, and military rape advocacy workers, the same story comes out, with the same details, the same narratives, the same outcomes, the same strings of words, even. That such identical details come from such radically different people either suggests that 1) Dick brilliantly coached about 50 non-pros to lie like trained actors or 2) This is the real, 100% true, truth. All it ever does is get worse as things are cleared up.
Who rapes? Often people of higher rank. Who know their victim. Who’ve raped before and will again.
We’re introduced to Brig. General Loree Sulton (Ret.) Psychiatrist, US Army, who’s brisk, friendly and assertive in her complete command of victims' psychology.
She tersely, chillingly asserts that tightly knit military units are nothing less than a “prime, target-rich environment for a predator” and points out the terrible irony that the military’s success at creating alternate families causes rape victims to suffer a far worse constellation of psychological damage after being raped, similar to that of incest. These were her surrogate brothers and fathers, after all, who attacked the victim, who may be lying about her, who are turning their backs on her.
Male predators also rape other males, with 20,000 “buddy-fuck” victims in the last ten years. Experts in multiple fields detach this from gay issues: again, rape is about power, violence and dominance. Rapists don’t care about gender. Just targets.
Kirby deftly alternates between small and large-scale abominations so as to keep the human suffering always at the fore, even when he goes historical. When you see a Marine talk about her agonizing violation, and then a second later we’re watching news footage of a famous rape military spree or court decision that says rape is an acceptable part of being in the military (this is a real thing), suddenly those facts are not distant, or abstractions. They’re real things, and you shudder to imagine how they affected the people you’ve come to care about during this film.
Dick follows one woman’s downward spiral from fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom, to being raped and devastated by PTSD and ending up homeless and drug addicted, to asking, How did this happen? Why does the service so grievously mistreat some of its warriors?
And the answer Dick offers? Military justice is not American justice. There’s a chain of command deciding things. The chain of command has all manner of reasons for keeping rape cases closed or invisible and does not work according to democratic rules. Commanders with no personal involvement in a case might see a rape accusation as a potential black mark on their own career, sweeping the issue and possible investigation under the rug. Maybe they think the girl was asking for it. Maybe they’ve committed rape themselves.
We meet Captain Greg Rinckey (Ret.) US Army JAG Corps, a fortyish man who seems to still not believe the awfulness of what he has to communicate to the filmmakers. “The problem in the military is, the convening authority, who is not legally trained, makes the final decision.” That "decision" being what happens in a rape case, which defines a woman’s entire life.
As a corrective to the luxury of selective historic amnesia Americans enjoy, Kirby brings up recent scandals, old nightmares.
There’s the Tailhook Scandal in 1991: at least 87 women sexually assaulted by more than 100 U.S. Navy and United States Marine Corps aviation officers. The Aberdeen Scandal in ’96: 30 women raped.
In the Colorado Springs Air Force Academy sexual assault scandal in 2003, 12% of all graduates claimed they were victims of rape or attempted rape. (The film reminds us that over 80% of victims never report their rape.)
At a certain point, the film crosses the line between objective documentary form and out and out advocacy in the same way Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s coverage of the West Memphis Three in Paradise Lost gave up even a fig leaf of detachment in the film’s two sequels, as the filmmakers realized the depth of the crime they were covering. I suppose some grand, detached style might be more artful, but I really don’t worry about superior grammar and usage when drowning people scream “help.”
Simply seeing The Invisible War won’t end any of the horrors it catalogues. But a movie like this wasn’t made to stop anything, it was made to anger you, to get you to do that first thing that keeps these monsters at bay. Ultimately, it really is up to you whether this film is a success or not.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.