Films / Miscellaneous

Fighting to Be Seen: A Review of “The Invisible War”

A female drill instructor supervises her recruits.

Shannon Clarke

Image courtesy of expertinfantry via Flickr.

There is almost nothing more noble than serving your country, especially in the United States. The American soldier is a symbol of patriotism and sacrifice, bravery and discipline.

And until 1948, masculinity.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. You just have to be good,” says that familiar 1950’s radio voice. In the opening clips of The Invisible War, it plays over black and white images of new female recruits, happy to finally have the privilege of service.

How many of them eventually realized that, in the military, being a woman matters a whole lot?

The women featured in Kirby Dick’s award-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary all enlisted with similar aspirations, only to realize they were committing themselves to a system designed to help the military “rape better”, says Sgt. Myla Haider. She, along with many of the women in the documentary, launched an unprecedented lawsuit against an institution steeped in misogyny and homophobia and almost completely immune to punishment.

Worse, they are deeply committed to protecting the perpetrators of sexual violence at the expense of thousands of women.

According to the documentary  (based on U.S. statistics and studies), an estimated 20 per cent of female soldiers have been sexually assaulted while in service. For women who have experienced rape and sexual violence, rates of PTSD are higher than for men in combat.

But, says attorney Susan Burke, the rapes themselves are rarely as bad as the “professional retaliation” that follows: threats, demotions, harassment and, in the case of servicewomen Andrea Werner, charges of adultery (she wasn’t married but her rapist was).

Kori Cioca – whose story anchors much of the film – served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 2005 to 2007. After repeated harassment from a superior, she was cornered in an office, beaten and raped. Cioca was left with a broken jaw and dislocated facial discs requiring dozens of drugs (some for pain, some for anxiety) and five years later is still fighting for disability benefits.

The Invisible War exposes the military’s failure to address the issue in any meaningful way. The majority of reports on rape and sexual assualt in the military are ignored or go un-investigated. And for those that are inestigated, there is little punishment for the perpetrators. There is no internal sex offender’s list. Very few rapists will ever serve jail time as their assualts are often reduced to minor crimes.

Instead, the institution employs a faithful PR team and capitalizes on the military’s insulation from civilian law. In the States, as in Canada, the military operates under it’s own judicial system. Court judges and prosecutors are also soldiers. This is why so many rapes go unreported: the person to report to can be a friend of the rapist, or even the rapist himself.

Since The Invisible War’s release, the Department of Defense has changed this. Soldiers will no longer have to report rapes to their commanders and a Special Victims Unit within the military will be established.

This is a small success.

Rape and violence against servicewomen is still tolerated by virtue of the military’s inaction. There’s SHARP (Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention)  an awareness campaign aimed at “risk reduction” but the responsibility falls completely on the woman’s shoulders. Instructional videos and posters advise soldiers (women) not to walk back to the barracks alone and be on alert. They advertise “respect” and “family” but, says Ret. Captain Anu Bhagwati, “Posters are not going to stop a predator.”

Though the documentary focuses on the crimes against women, it takes care to address those male victims who, like veteran Michael Matthews, have stayed silent for decades about their rapes.  Though women are more likely to be the targets of sexual violence, the sheer number of active servicemen means a single percentage is equal to tens of thousands of male victims. It’s a bitter side effect of homophobia that so many men suffer in silence.

By including the perspectives of partners, The Invisible War taps into the many ways rape affects the lives of survivors and their families. People like Cioca’s husband, Rob McDonald, who left the military to support his wife in recovery (physical, mental and emotional), adamantly refuses to let his young daughter enlist.

The experiences of these women should be familiar to Canadian viewers today as an equally beloved and admired national institution confronts its code of silence. The RCMP is now facing its own tacit acceptance of sexual harassment against women after a steady stream of allegations since 2011. More recently, RCMP officers have been accused of sexually assaulting Aboriginal women in British Columbia.

The Invisible War isn’t the first time the U.S. military has been publicly shamed for its treatment of women and sexual assault survivors, but with its Oscar nomination Sunday night, it may be the most successful. Rape, violence and intimidation are certainly not unique to the armed forces, but the consequences of reporting assault within the military are. When even the least patriotic of citizens turn a blind eye to the crimes of their nation’s heroes, they are complicit in breeding a culture where violence continues with impunity.

The Invisible War finished its two-day run at Bloor Cinema on Feb. 24. M

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