The Invisible War: A Film on Rape, Women and Combat (A Review)

June 23, 2012

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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.
Continue reading @ The Invisible War: A Film on Rape, Women and Combat (A Review) | The Feminist Wire.

Masculinity, the NFL, and Concussions

Masculinity, the NFL, and Concussions

May 12, 2012

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The defenders of the National Football League (NFL) have been busy.  In the wake of the suicide of Junior Seau, on the heels of several other untimely deaths, “bountygate,” several former lawsuits regarding concussions, and growing scientific literature highlighting the dangers of football, its protectors have gone on the offensive.  From citing other potential factors that have led to ridiculous rates of suicide, traumatic brain injuries, and a life-after-football defined by depression, memory loss, neurological difficulties and a quality of life no one would associate with America’s heroes, to celebrating the NFL for its efforts to protect the players, the NFL hype machine has gone to great lengths to push back against the growing outcry against football.

Yet probably the most common response has been to place blame on the players, emphasizing their choices and responsibility. “I can’t blame the NFL for every issue that every former player in the NFL has,” noted former player and current ESPN football analyst Cris Carter.  “I signed up to be in the NFL. It wasn’t like someone had to force me. I kinda knew what I was signing up for.”  Responsibility resides with the men who play football and few else. In other words, while terrible, concussions and the long-term impact of those concussions is an unfortunate reality brought about by choices. Players understand the risks, and are rewarded because of the violence and danger, and thus the NFL and any of its partners bear little burden. Illustrating the ways that hegemony works and the illusion of choice, Carter’s comments reflect the erasure of power and ideology.

Greg Doyel, at CBS Sports, further encapsulates the “logic” and framing that turns the violence of football into a choice, one that may have consequences:

For me, it comes down to choice — and football players have a choice whether to play or not. It’s not a blind choice, either. This isn’t the 1960s, when Colts tight end John Mackey had no idea what the violent collisions were doing to his brain. The greatest tight end of his generation was showing signs of dementia in his 50s, in an assisted-living center at age 65, dead at 69. Mackey never knew the risks, but today’s players know. Playing football is like smoking a cigarette: This isn’t the 1960s; everyone knows the risks. . . . Football isn’t dog fighting, where mistreated animals take it out on each other in a cage. Those dogs have no choice. NFL players do. And let’s be honest: The lifestyle of an NFL player is incredible. Even if it ultimately shaves years off their lifespan — and lessens the quality of those remaining years — there’s an argument to be made that it’s worth it. The fortune, the fame. The thrill of the crowd. That’s a lifestyle they can’t get anywhere else. Live like a king at 30, hobbled at 50, dead at 65? Not sure I’d take it, but many would. And do.

Similarly, Karla Milner, who commented on The Washington Times website, offered the following:

… two words people: PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY. We all make choices – not all of them are good. But they are our choices and we should own them. If you choose to smoke all your life you should NOT be able to sue the tobacco companies as in my lifetime there’s never been one second that we didn’t know it was bad for our health (and I’m over 50). And if you choose to play football (professionally or otherwise) you should not be able to sue over issues from concussions or other injuries because there’s no way in hell you could NOT know that the risk of injury and issues down the road was a possibility…

She wasn’t alone, with dozens of commenters reiterating the mantra of choice and accountability. One such person, Blair, agreed: “Like you were all forced into playing the game…. Look at boxers? Heck, who warned me that everytime (sic) I got on my bike after school I could get a concussion jumping ramps in the alley?” Patrick Hruby describes the fan and media reaction as follows:

1. Getting hit in the head is bad for you;

1a. Duh;

2. Former football players understood this risk when they signed on the NFL’s dotted line;

3. Ergo, the league is not responsible for helping players deal with subsequent memory loss, lack of emotional control, cognitive decline or early-onset dementia;

4. Also ergo, any former football player with the sheer gall to file a lawsuit is a greedy moocher trying to work the system, akin to the lady who sued McDonald’s over spilled hot coffee.

The ubiquitous links to McDonalds and tobacco are interesting in that in both those cases, the logics of capitalism and the instruments that protect the bottom line sought to minimize or, better said, quash any threats. The tobacco industry, in fact, sought to deny the consequences of tobacco, so why are we to think that such denials or reframes are little more than a tobacco-like distraction?

The constant references to players reportedly hiding symptoms or players refusing to listen to medical advice regarding concussions represent a narrative emphasizing choice. It is the players who bear responsibility for their choices; and more importantly, those who choose to remain in the league, who continue to live the American Dream playing America’s current pastime, do so knowing the risks.

This conservative reactionary response is of little surprise given the links between the U.S. political establishment, the military, commercial culture, and football. The constant emphasis on choice, individual actions, on pulling oneself up by one’s cleat laces, on risks and rewards, is emblematic of the hegemony of a protestant work ethic trope and meritocracy. Never mind the lack of transparency and education that allows one to make “informed choices,” the efforts to defend the NFL and deny culpability erases the ways in which masculinity and dominant notions of good versus bad manhood constrain the choices that players and fans alike make regarding football.

Continue reading @ Masculinity, the NFL, and Concussions | The Feminist Wire.