Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Invisible War

Kirby Dick’s heartbreaking and enraging documentary “The Invisible War,” about the astonishing rate of sexual assaults in the military (the vast majority against women but a surprising number against men also), is the rare film document with the power to effect social change. Nobody with a soul could hear these women’s stories and not share their pain, frustration, fear and betrayal.

The statistics make your jaw drop. It is estimated that over three thousand sexual assaults take place within the five branches of the military each year. Of these, well fewer than 200 result in the perpetrators’ serving any jail time at all (and military prosecutors routinely undercharge relative to their civil counterparts). A large part of the problem is the chain of command, which gives nearly unfettered discretion to servicewomen’s commanders to investigate, pursue or drop charges. Fully one-third of the time, the commander is a personal friend of the accused, and one-fourth of the time, the commander IS the accused. Process that.

Of course, it is up to the documentarian to humanize the raw data, and Dick has carefully chosen an ogdoad of highly articulate and forthcoming women upon whom to focus, with additional insights from several others, as well as male victims and victims’ rights attorneys, psychiatrists and military brass. We see for ourselves how having been raped continues to affect these women on a daily basis, from the Marine who has no discs where her jaw was before her rapist dislocated it with a brutal blow, to the Air Force officer who, decades after her rape, sits at a food court with her family, her eyes constantly darting, warily watching every movement of every stranger around her. (Her rapist was later named “Airman of the Year.”)

Whatever your view of today’s military, these women entered with the most honorable intentions of serving their country and attaining a quality education. For their efforts to be rewarded with victim-blaming, vindictive career reprisals, endless bureaucratic red tape, and denial of benefits we clearly owe them is beyond infuriating. It makes you feel some small sense of the hopelessness they have known. (N.B. After viewing the film in April, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered that commanders be removed from the chain of command in the handling of sexual assault charges, an important first step.)

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