The Invisible War
Directed by Kirby Dick
The statistics brandished by the documentary “The Invisible War” are scandalous, but what makes this savage indictment of the epidemic of rape in the US military so unforgettable are not numbers but the devastating personal stories of the victims of brutal sexual assault.
It’s not that those numbers, all courtesy of US government studies, don’t have their power: 22,800 violent sex crimes in the military in 2011; 30 percent of servicewomen sexually assaulted during their enlistment; women in combat zones more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by the enemy. But the agony of those who live with the nightmare trumps even these.
People like the Navy’s Trina McDonald, drugged and raped repeatedly by the military police in Alaska’s remote Aleutian Islands. Or the Coast Guard’s Kori Cioca, whose jaw was pulverized in an attack that is still so painful and traumatizing she does not leave the house without a crucifix and a fierce-looking knife. “You always have protection with Jesus,” she explains. “But sometimes you need a little bit more.”
As directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering, who did those powerful interviews, “The Invisible War” goes through all of this and more in classic muckraking fashion, revealing victims of both sexes whose lives were destroyed and a military that has been more than happy to erroneously believe it is doing all it can.
Veteran filmmaker Dick, whose previous work includes the Emmy-nominated “Outrage” and the Oscar-nominated “Twist of Faith,” said before Sundance (where “Invisible War” won the audience award) that the stories he heard were “the most intense series of interviews I have ever been involved with.” With the subjects as well as the men in their lives often in tears, he adds, “both Amy and I cried at just about every interview.”
It is not just the detailing of the horrors of assault that makes “The Invisible War” so upsetting, it is its exploration of what led these people to the military and what happened to them once they filed rape charges that gives the film much of its power.
The story starts with clips from the Army-created 1950s TV documentary series “The Big Picture,” showing the pride of the women who served back in the day, followed by one of those ubiquitous “Be All You Can Be” advertising spots.
For it turns out that intense satisfaction in having served their country is what unites the people in “The Invisible War.” While not everyone could claim, as Marine Elle Helmer does, that her family’s line of unbroken service extends to the Revolutionary War, they are all idealistic true believers who loved what they did. And, says filmmaker Dick, to a person they refused to be involved in this film if it was going to be anti-military.
In fact, the sense the women had, often instilled in them by military fathers, that they were entering one big family that would always look out for them, made the rapes that occurred feel like incest. “When that bond of trust is broken,” says Army Brig. Gen. (and psychiatrist) Loree Sutton, “the wound penetrates to the innermost part of the soul.”
What happened to these women after the rape often shocks and disturbs them as much as the physical act itself. More often than not, the charges are not taken seriously as a victim-punishing system treats them like criminals, not injured parties. At times even formally charged with adultery, these women are forced out of the service they would have given their lives for.
The heart of the problem is that US military justice mandates that charges like this are heard not by an independent judiciary but by one’s immediate commanding officer. In many cases that is either the assaulter himself or a close friend, which is one reason the military itself estimates that 80 percent of sexual assaults are not reported.
The combination of these factors is why the women interviewed here are depressed, skittish, often fearful of going outside. The military reports that 40 percent of female homeless vets have been raped, and women who have been raped have a higher PTSD rate than men in combat. (One man who was raped is interviewed on camera, with experts saying that the shame factor is worse for men.)
Nothing if not thorough, “The Invisible War” delineates past sexual misconduct scandals like 1991’s Tailhook horror and talks to high-level Pentagon figures who unconvincingly spout the “zero tolerance” party line. But it all pales compared to seeing Kori Cioca having to unsuccessfully battle to get an indifferent Veterans Administration to pay for medical treatment for her debilitating injuries.
In this context, it’s especially heartening as well as a tribute to how effectively “The Invisible War” marshals its forces to report that shortly after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saw the film at a special screening he changed some of the systems that have made life hell for rape victims. It won’t solve the problem, but perhaps some of this story’s worst excesses can be considered things of the past. We can always hope.