REVIEW: Tough, Devastating The Invisible War Takes on Rape in the Military
It's hard to know exactly how to review something like The Invisible War, how to step back and look at it as a movie through the steady barrage of emotional devastation it presents. The stranger sitting next to me at my screening spent the latter half of the runtime sobbing into a fistful of tissues, and I couldn't blame her — the film, the latest documentary from the Oscar-nominated Kirby Dick (Outrage, This Film Is Not Yet Rated) presents a sickening chorus of accounts not just of rape but of institutional betrayal, of a system that's utterly failed to protect or serve those who've joined it.
The Invisible War is brutal in the cases of sexual assaults in the U.S. military it runs down, but it's even harder to take when it then explores the lack of follow-up, the victim blaming and self-serving protection of those in charge and the status quo. Again and again, the interviewees in the film — who are mostly but not entirely women — tell stories of enlisting out of idealism, patriotism or family tradition, thinking they've found a place for themselves, only to realize that for some of their colleagues, they'll only ever be a target, and for others, they're going to be held responsible for their own safety and taken to task otherwise.
The film offers a variety of stories from military rape victims from different branches of the armed forces, including the Coast Guard and the Marines. Disturbing patterns quickly emerge. A woman ends up on assignment somewhere where she's usually outnumbered. She gets harassed; she gets raped. She reports what happened to her superior officer, who either warns her off, or is a friend of the attacker, or would just rather the problem go away. And usually, at least for the perpetrator, it does — an appallingly low number of cases actually get brought to any kind of justice.
Dick skillfully weaves together interviews with presentations of some damning numbers — like the fact that 20% of active-duty female soldiers get sexually assaulted, and the military itself acknowledges that a lot of cases are underreported because accusations of rape are so discouraged and can also permanently damage careers. To listen to someone talk about how she ended up getting charged with adultery and conduct unbecoming an officer after being assaulted by a married colleague is to feel that these structures aren't just fundamentally flawed, they actually encourage this kind of horrific behavior because there are no consequences.
The Invisible War follows a few of its interviewees in their current, non-military lives. One, Kori Cioca, is a young mother trying to get the VA to help her with the surgery she needs for her facial injury — she had her jaw broken by someone with whom she was serving in the Coast Guard, a man who raped her. Struggling with PTSD and in constant pain, she's able to eat only soft food and is told she hasn't served long enough to be covered because she left after the assault. Navy Seaman Trina McDonald was drugged and raped repeatedly while on a remote assignment in Alaska — the men attacking her were the military police to whom she'd need to report an assault. Now married to a woman and living in Seattle, she still struggles with trauma that, for a while, left her addicted and homeless.
There are others — Marine Ariana Klay was told she must have wanted the harassment she received because she wore her military-standard uniform skirt. Elle Helmer, another Marine, and Navy Seaman Hannah Sewell had their rape kits "lost." The film delves into what's been done to change the present military culture and comes up with some laughable in-house poster and video campaigns that feature a woman soldier being angrily quizzed about why she's out by herself and another that urges guys to "ask her when she's sober," suggesting that the problem in the military's eyes is drunk girls with morning-after regrets rather than the kinds of attacks described by the interviewees on screen.
The Invisible War also suggests, though doesn't pursue the way perhaps it should have, that the military has a higher percentage of sexual predators than the outside world — because they're drawn to the macho imagery with which enlistment is sold. The film certainly offers a solid case for military service being a great environment for someone with those inclinations, because there's little recourse for a victim to report what happened outside of going to his or her commanding officer (one spokesperson earnestly suggests one could also write to one's congressperson as a secondary option), and that goes against military sentiment of solidarity and strength through suffering.
But solidarity's worth nothing if you're not actually a part of the whole, and both the accounts on display here and the way so many of the interviewees conclude that, initial positive experiences aside, they couldn't recommend that anyone serve, show just how warped the system is and how many scars it's left. The Invisible War might be best judged as a piece of activism, in which case it's already succeeding — after seeing the film in April, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta took the responsibility for sexual assault investigations away from commanding officers and put them in the hands of higher-ranking officials. It's a step in the right direction, but this doc makes it clear there are many more serious changes to be made.