Films are manipulative. They can move around in space and time and control the way we receive information, affecting how we perceive reality, who we root for, what is truth. Especially documentaries, which cover factual events and people, can trick us into choosing one theory, or interpretation, or ideology in the guise of being objective. What is so powerful about The Invisible War is how it presents the facts of its charged subject matter, rape in the military, because the film’s very focus is the facts: the abundance of evidence of sexual assault that has gone unheard or ignored or been swept under the rug.
The Invisible War centers on a court case brought by a handful of former service members, and its point is simply to place faces from both sides and let the personal stories of the victims compete against the brass tasked with parroting policy, interspersing this with statistics put out by the Department of Defense, or that the court in question ruled rape to be an “occupational hazard” of military service. The game is rigged. But when a documentary’s done its job, you understand why it’s rigged the way it is. The whole point of The Invisible War is that this issue is so cancerous in part because the institutions in question refuse to discuss it at all, leave alone address the underlying problems. So let’s talk about it.
Part of what’s so impressive about the film is the sheer number of subjects filmmaker Kirby Dick secured to speak on camera and share their stories, some in shadow with altered voices for fear of discovery, particularly as part of the problem in rape cases is a fear of coming forward. The most prominent of these is former Coast Guard servicewoman Kori Cioca, whose jaw was shattered while she was raped, and her struggles to collect health benefits from the V. A. to receive proper treatment. The film spends a lot of time in her home, watching her play with her young daughter and go on doctor visits with her husband. It is the juxtaposition of her daily life, the tension and strain simmering just below it, that makes the statistics so damning. Left alone are the instances of bureaucratic SNAFU, letters denying her for coverage for supposed back injuries when it is her jaw that needs work, while the film lingers on Cioca in her kitchen, with no other option than to eat soft foods with a spoon.
Experts, advocates and archival footage are trotted out at regular intervals to examine the whys of institutional negligence in the prosecution of rape cases in the military, a negligence which only breeds more rape, and the famous sex scandals of the various service branches – Air Force Academy, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, and the Tailhook scandals – but the key to The Invisible War’s effectiveness is in its success putting faces to the statistic which opens the film: after a peppy montage of WWII era propaganda footage advertising the exciting new opportunities for women in the service, we are hit with the heartbreaking fact that 20% of all active-duty female service members are sexually assaulted during their time in the military.
Without recourse to traditional law enforcement, representation, or the ability to leave of one’s own will, survivors of military sexual abuse are trapped in a way other survivors are not. The film takes a similar approach to its statistical analysis, showing talking head after heartbreaking talking head of survivors telling their stories, then always returning to the damning numbers and the rage-inducing responses of the military leadership, including a “Prevention” strategy so unspeakably idiotic, the film doesn’t need to do anything but show posters chiding soldiers to, “wait until she’s sober.”
The film methodically builds its case, examining the circumstances of Cioca and her fellow plaintiffs in the D.O.D. lawsuit assaults and the command structures, psychological tendencies, and institutional culture that permitted such crimes to occur, to skate punishment, and, implicitly, to go unheard in the wider dialogue we as a country have about the military. The film’s endpoint is its most damning: breaking the coverup and exploring the culture of sexual abuse at Marine Barracks Washington, the most prestigious ceremonial unit in the United States. The Invisible War punctures that glittering façade, to make you wonder as you glance at the servicewomen atop the rotunda during the Inauguration, what’s happened to them? Upon showing a completed version of the film to newly appointed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, he revoked the right of commanders below the rank of colonel to handle cases of sexual assault two days later. That’s how powerful a case The Invisible War makes. The success of its case hinges, however, on the rest of us to continue to speak out once the lights have come up.
The rare film that deserves the word ‘Important’ in front of it, The Invisible War should be required viewing for potential recruits and has done a great deal to further the case for further justice and accountability in the military. It’s streaming on Netflix. Go watch it.
Take a Drink and/or Throw a Drink At The Wall: whenever top Brass and their PR minions prevaricate, plead ignorance, hedge, or try to smooth over the damning evidence.
Waterfall Your Drink: during the Army’s “Assault Prevention” rap video, but even then it will probably be just as awful and enraging.
Take a Drink: when you have done something positive – write your congressman, get educated, etc. – to help influence a change in policy, because incentives lead to action, right?