Be all that you can be. The few, the proud…the Marines. Always prepared. Aim high. Those are just some of the slogans used over the years for the various branches of the United States armed forces, and they capture the combination of courage, selflessness and pride of the men and women serving their country. And while we can never doubt their service, there is an ugly problem underneath the surface that has nothing to do with military operations, but rather, with a culture that has fostered and failed to address abuse. Sexual assault is an epidemic in the U.S. military, and Kirby Dick‘s eye-opening and powerful “The Invisible War” shines a harsh light on the issue, one that reveals that the slow progressive attitude of the armed forces, still has a long, long way to go.
The first point the documentary makes clear is that the statistics presented within are all from U.S. government studies. And the numbers are staggering. Since 2006, more than 95,000 service members have been sexually assaulted in the U.S. military. If that sounds like a lot — and it is — now consider that as much as 86% of service members don’t report assault. Why? In many cases it’s to avoid further reprisal, or the person who has committed the assault is either a direct superior or a friend of a direct superior. Now add to that a military culture in which cases, if they actually ever do go to trial, result in miniscule slap-on-the-wrist convictions with even less leading to jail time, and you have system that not only invites sexual predators, but is a breeding ground for them. According to one study, the amount of military servicemen who have previously committed rape or sexual assualt who are in admitted into the services, is nearly double the national average for civilians.
This is all harrowing, angering, frustrating stuff, but Dick’s excellent documentary balances letting the survivors share their pain, while exploring the systemic problems that have allowed sexual abuse and assult rise to unthinkable proportions. While Dick talks to a wide range of women (and one man — it’s noted that rate assault/abuse may actually be higher in this gender given it’s almost never reported), he zeroes in on the stories of three in particular: Kori Cioca of the Coast Guard, who was raped and severely beaten by a superior; Ariana Klay, a celebrated member of Marines, raped while serving in one of the company’s that routinely takes care of White House duties; and Trina McDonald, drugged and raped repeatedly in a remote outpost in Alaska. These are tough stories, but as some of them relate, how they were treated afterward may have been worse.
It’s the story of Cioca where this is best displayed. During her assault, she got hit in the face so hard that her jaw became unhinged, and she’s now only able to eat soft foods until she gets the required surgery. Waiting for months upon months for the VA to approve her claim to she can get surgery, she is given a pharmacy’s worth of various medications to treat everything from depression (she has contemplated suicide, going as far as writing the letter) to pain; that the combination of drugs themselves are potentially deadly is a rich irony. Numerous phone calls reveal that the VA are routinely misinformed about her incident and her claim, so no surprise that after a long and anxious wait, her claim is rejected. She will have to appeal.
A combination of factors from an inefficient level of bureucracy, to the fact that immediate supervisors in the military services — sometimes even those who commit abuse — can choose to pursue a complaint or not, have created a climate where the rate of PTSD among assult victims is actually higher than those who have been in combat. But the general attitude towards this issue can be found in the approach of the Sexual Assault Prevention And Response Office. None of the interviews are as infuriating in the film as those with Dr. Kaye Whitely, director of that ineffectual department, whose resources are mostly tied up in creating posters and corny rap videos that essentially tells women to use the buddy system to stay safe. Because apparently a woman merely walking alone is asking to be raped.
“The Invisible War” while filled with anger, is never short on hope either. The survivors profiled — a handful of whom band together to file a lawsuit later in the picture — are inspiring in their strength alone, with many moving on and starting families, entering relationships, all while navigating the lingering effects and deep emotional fallout of an event that will mark their lives forever. At one point during the picture, a psychologist notes that pain these folks feel is similar to those who survive incest; the military services are built on brotherhood and trusting your fellow soldier with your life. A rip in that bond is devastating. But the determination of these stoic souls to rise above, find justice and most of all, rebuild their lives makes “The Invisible War” not just a portrait of institutional injustice, but of the kind of character that the military services helps turn out, and should be fighting to make sure they are treated with the honor they deserve.
As the film ends, it’s made clear that the subjects of the film are still waiting for justice to be served, with assailants remaining unconvicted or at large, either in the military or in the public. But again, there is a flash of hope. On April 14th, Secretary Of Defense Leon Panetta watched “The Invisible War” and two days later, took the power to decide to prosecute or not away from commanders. It’s a small step. But hopefully, many more will follow. [B+]