There’s a number in Michael Curtiz’s White Christmas (1954) called, “Gee, I wish I was back in the Army,” in which Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye sing somewhat jokey odes to military service, extolling the virtues of “three meals a day, for which you didn’t pay. … There’s a lot to be said for the Army, the life without responsibility.” They go on to sing, “A soldier out of luck was really never stuck; there’s always someone higher up where you can pass the buck.” Their female counterparts, played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, add their thoughts, pining, “Gee, I wish I was back in the Army, the Army was the place to find romance,” a place where, “a gal was never lost for company. A million handsome guys, with longing in their eyes, and all you had to do was pick the age, the weight, the size.” I thought a lot about that song during Kirby Dick’s powerful The Invisible War (2012), a documentary about sexual assault within the military, which offered the fact that more than 20% of female veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving. That’s one in five. It seems that it’s hardly the women who pick the age, the weight, the size.
The military itself reported 3,000 rapes in 2011, a figure that the Department of Defense admits is low, acknowledging that 80% of assaulted women don’t report. It’s estimated that 500,000 women have been assaulted in the history of co-ed service. Forget about film criticism, those numbers are staggering.
The movie uses these horrifying statistics and a few more (1% of men are also assaulted, a number that equals 20,000 a year) and couples them with terrible anecdotes from survivors. The picture argues that the military extols an ideal of masculinity (“Be Strong”), and that aggression is encouraged and ignored when that aggression is sexual. Victims have plenty of reason to stay silent about their situations. The report of a rape can cost a woman her rank or a shot at a promotion or even see her court-martialed for adultery (the victim need not be married, only the assailant). More often than not a blame-the-victim culture is created. One woman had it explained to her that her assault was simply the man “capitalizing on an opportunity you presented him”; another’s case was dismissed because she was wearing a provocative outfit, nothing less than her military–issued uniform, during the incident. One more was patronized by being told that “alcohol and men and women don’t mix,” disregarding the fact that many of these women were ordered to appear at mandatory drinking events. Sadly, I could go on, but it fills me with fury.
The problem, the movie argues, is that unlike the civilian world, the insular military relies on itself to dole out justice and in these cases the units themselves are responsible for making sure cases get taken care of. We’re told that 25% of assaulted women don’t report their assaults because the person they were to report it to was the perpetrator, who presumably already knows. A depressing sequence shows how, although more than 3,000 cases get reported in a given year, the rules of the operation allow for so many loopholes and different categorizations that only a little more than 100 of the charged assailants see any jail time, and most, even if convicted, don’t end up on a sex offender list when they return to civilian life. One of the assailants of the survivors shown in the movie just made lieutenant colonel.
There are many moving stories (nearly all of the testimonials involve tears at some point) that serve to show the full range of the effects of the assaults. The physical toll is one thing (a former Coast Guard member lost the disks in her jaw during her assault and battles daily to get the VA to replace them), but the emotional cost are all-encompassing. The same Coast Guard member has intimacy issues with her husband, a vet himself, that he tries to navigate in frustration. “I just want to help you,” he begs. “You can’t,” she responds, forlorn. She reads a letter she wrote to her mother before her suicide attempt. Many of the survivors have considered it. They feel betrayed because their patriotism and selflessness were taken advantage of, and the same organization is saying there’s nothing they can do, or worse, that they had it coming. A Supreme Court decision maintained that rape was an occupational hazard for women in the military in 2011. Just part of serving alongside a million guys with longing in their eyes.
I honestly don’t know how to respond to this movie on a cinematic level. I watch a message documentary like this one and try to weigh how persuasive it is with how fair it’s being to its opposition. Yes, The Invisible War is promoting an issue, but how can it not? How can you know these things and not be outraged? There’s no gray area here unless you believe that sexual assault is permissible human behavior, and if that’s the case, God help you. Yet, the movie is fair, giving representatives of the military their say; it’s just that the organizations and policies put in place to prevent this type of thing are so toothless they would be surreally comic if it weren’t so sad. One produces a training video that shows a woman narrowly avoiding an assault, just to be chided that she shouldn’t have been walking alone. “Where was your buddy?” the male recruits ask her, referring to the childish name the program gives to escorts. “I didn’t think I needed one,” she reasonably responds, considering she’s on a military base. A poster extols male soldiers to “Don’t Risk It … wait till she’s sober!”
Dr. Kaye Whitley, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, which put out this material, has to painfully dodge questions and respond to statistics that are “out of [her] area of expertise”; hopefully, not because she doesn’t know these figures but because she doesn’t have a leg to stand on to do anything about them. She is no longer the director of the program. It’s hard to say if her replacement will be more successful until the structure of reporting and the distribution of justice is overhauled. A lot of message documentaries get smug, as if they’re happy these problems exist so they can tsk–tsk at the perpetrators. This issue is too somber and the film never gives that feeling. I don’t believe The Invisible War has an agenda against the military, only that it’s disappointed in this severe absence of humanity and its failed policies on this issue. I get the feeling that the filmmakers would rather not have had to make this movie.
It’s impactful because it has the harrowing truth on its side, so much so that two days after seeing a screening of it, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued an order that made reporting easier, safer and more objective. As the movie states, this is a start. The Invisible War justifies its existence by being a record of the facts and figures. You can dismiss the stories as anecdotal or exploitative, but the numbers, released by the DOD itself, are unacceptable, and therefore the movie should be seen by as many people as possible, even if they’re not in for the most uplifting of experiences, though it’s one that is rosy in comparison to what these survivors and others have been through. Rape is the most piercing violation of trust, perhaps even more so when an emotional trust is being violated as well (psychologists in the film liken this type of assault to incest cases because units are so sold on a family dynamic); that violation is made worse still when the victims aren’t protected afterward. These people sacrificed themselves out of the idea of serving their country but no one is serving them. The military should be and is a national point of pride, but this epidemic is a national shame.