The Invisible War: A Film on Rape, Women and Combat (A Review)
Horrifying . . . devastating . . . infuriating . . . saddening. These are the emotions I felt as I watched The Invisible War, a new film, written and directed by Kirby Dick, which opened nationally yesterday. To be sure, The Invisible War isn’t your typical war story. It’s a gripping docu-film that focuses on the “powerfully emotional stories of rape victims” within the U.S. military, and their “struggles to rebuild their lives and fight for justice.” Shining a spotlight on a world largely defined by masculinity, combat, force, sex, and concealment, this film unveils the following:
- 20% of women are assaulted while in the military
- Only 8% of the assailants are prosecuted, with only 2% facing conviction
- 80% of the victims do not report
- 25% of women do not report rape because the person responsible for receiving the report is oft times also the rapist
- 1% of men in the military, totaling 20,000, are victims of rape
- 15% of incoming military recruits acknowledge that they have attempted or committed a rape prior to entering the service
- 40% of homeless female veterans are victims of rape
- Of the 3,223 cases that are actually prosecuted, only 175 of the assailants would serve jail time (all numbers are from the film or related press)
- “The Veterans Administration spends approximately $10,880 on healthcare costs per military sexual assault survivor. Adjusting for inflation, this means that in 2011 alone, the VA spent almost $900 million on sexual assault‐related healthcare expenditures” (press packet).
The Invisible War paints a picture of injustice and sexism, and a culture of sexual violence that has reached epidemic proportions. However, it does more than offer disheartening and infuriating statistics. It provides a story, a story about women and men—those who are celebrated as heroes, who receive standing ovations at parades, whose service is lionized and celebrated over and over again—who have been raped while serving in the U.S. military. Irrespective of yellow ribbons and holidays, it is a story that illuminates rape culture and the ways that victims are multiply victimized within a culture of warfare, camouflage (or cover-up), and sexual violence.
The filmmakers interview roughly 70 survivors of military rape, women and men, who in the face of victimization by their assailants, their military community, and countless others, have decided to fight back. We learn the stories of women like Kori Cioca who was raped and physically beaten while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. We hear how her assailant, who was also her commanding officer, didn’t just rape her, but also broke her jaw during the attack. And, we learn how Cioca was reminded (over and over again) that her punishment for “lying” would be a court-martial, when attempting to report the assault to those in command.
The Invisible War elucidates a culture of rape and victimization as well as the continual cultivation of revictimization, wherein the military instigates an “in-house” society of violence—among comrades. Some victims were even charged with adultery due to the assailant being married! Moreover, of the five women from Marine Barracks Washington interviewed in the film, four were investigated and punished after reporting incidences of rape. They were told to “suck it up,” unfairly disciplined professionally, threatened with prosecution, and demonized publicly. And perhaps worse of all, they were often forced to face their assailants every step of the way.
From suicide attempts to physical pain, the film documents several consequences of rape, to include but not limited to rising costs, exacerbated by an “in-house” rape culture. We see this with Cioca. The physical pain resulting from her assault is endless. Because of her broken jaw, Cioca continues to live on a liquid diet, she cannot go outside when it is cold because of pain, and probably most dispiriting, Cioca’s assault remains with her both physically and emotionally. In fact, she often wakes up screaming. The dual agony of severe discomfort and traumatic recollection are unceasing. Unfortunately, this reality has been largely ignored by the VA, which refused to cover all of her medical expenses.
The power of The Invisible War rests with the elevation of the voices and experiences of the soldiers themselves and their families. The consequences of sexual violence can be felt in the physical and emotional anguish expressed throughout the production. However, though the film gives voice to victims of rape (and their families) within the military, therefore breaking the silence perpetuated by a complicit media, it misses a critical opportunity to expand the discussion to explore the effects and entwinement of militarism, patriarchy and misogyny in our broader socio-political context. At times, The Invisible War seems to even downplay how patriarchy and American institutions/ideology(ies) actually sanction and give life to rape culture(s). In short, in trying to spotlight the injustice facing men and women in the military, and the systematic camouflaging (pun intended) at each level in the chain of command, The Invisible War misses the opportunity to make some pretty significant connections.
A more efficient grasping of sexual violence within the military requires looking at its deployment of gendered language as well as the ways in which women are objectified within and without military culture. It also demands that we look at “base women,” the relationship between U.S. operations overseas and prostitution, as well as the ways that sexism infects U.S. policies. In addition, a more critical reading of sexual violence pushes us to explore the treatment of women within the U.S. military, particularly those serving in countries currently occupied by the U.S.
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