The numbers are staggering. The Department of Defense estimates that 19,300 service members were sexually assaulted in 2010 alone. Survivors of military rape rarely find justice. Many rapes go unreported because the rapist may be a friend of the person it would be reported to—often the rapist is the person one would report it to. The Invisible War allows survivors of military rape to tell their stories. As horrendous as these stories are, the lack of response by the military justice system is even more appalling.
We first meet several women (and one man) as they tell of why they joined the military. We’ve heard these storied from military people before: they wanted to serve their country; they came from a several-generation military family; they wanted the structure and discipline of military life. All went into the service believing in what they were doing and knowing that they were doing something for themselves and others.
But fairly quickly, the stories transition to the assaults. These are not just misunderstandings about consent. These are violent rapes. The film moves on to the frustration not only of the victims, but of some of those who investigate the attacks at the lack of response within the military. Even when it is clear what happened, commanders frequently treat it as unimportant. That lack of response magnifies the sense of betrayal. It also points out serious flaws in the ways the military deals with the issue—both in responding to assaults and efforts to prevent them.
One would think that such a film would be seriously anti-military, but those who took part in the film wanted to make sure that it would not be. To be sure, some of them have serious concerns about the way the military treated them (often threatening to charge them for adultery, conduct unbecoming, or false reports), but they nearly all value their military service up to the point that they entered the rabbit hole growing out of military sexual assault. This rabbit hole is not limited to the military. A lawsuit by several survivors was dismissed because the court says sexual assault is an occupational hazard of military service.
While these stories make up the core of the film, it is also a call for action. We follow some of these victims on rounds of Capitol Hill speaking to members of Congress about the problem. There are various proposals (from members of both parties) to make the military more responsive to issues around sexual assault. There are ways that some of the problems can be fixed. The film suggests that since the military seems disinclined to fix these problems, a political/legal remedy must be developed.
The film is a powerful presentation of a disturbing situation. Much of that power comes from the survivors we meet in the film. They are not anonymous victims. We know their names. They have placed themselves and their families on display, not to gain fame—most survivors try to hide what has happened to them—but to make us all see how extensive a problem this is. They deserve to be honored for their service in uniform. But it took an entirely different kind of bravery to stand forward as they have here.
For more information on the issue of military sexual assault, go to NotInvisible.org.