The Invisible War

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<i>The Invisible War</i>

The Oscar- and Emmy-winning documentarian behind This Film Is Not Yet Rated turns his lens on one of the United States military’s most shameful and best-kept secrets: rape. According to data reported in the film and sourced from the Department of Defense, more than 20 percent of all servicewomen have been assaulted while serving, and a half a million people—women and men—have been sexually assaulted in the U.S. military. That’s a rampant problem that flares in the public consciousness every so often—remember the Tailhook scandal?—but otherwise goes largely unreported.

And as writer-director Kirby Dick makes clear in The Invisible War, for these women, rape isn’t even the worst of it. One of the featured subjects, U.S. Coast Guard Seaman Kori Cioca, is still suffering the effects of a broken jaw five years after her commanding officer assaulted her. The women are victims of men they considered their friends, and their commanding officers to whom they would report the incidents are in many cases either pals of the perpetrators or the perpetrators themselves. Moreover, the military is both ill-equipped and uninterested in prosecuting rape cases: Victims are told to “suck it up” and that sexual assault is an “occupational hazard.” If they still choose to report, they may find themselves charged with a crime and discharged from duty.

If this enrages you, it should. Dick deftly plucks all the right heartstrings to make sure it does with expertly edited sequences by Douglas Blush, which demonstrate how alike all of these women’s stories are. Uniformly, they were idealistic when they enlisted: They were from proud military families or they sought exciting careers or they wanted to see the world. But even these initial interviews are tinged with sadness, as one by one they reveal brutal betrayal by men who were supposed to be their brothers in arms.

While producer Amy Ziering’s probing interviews with the film’s subjects are emotional and moving, Dick further elicits viewer empathy by following a select few home. It’s hard to deny the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder when confronted with Cioca’s pile of prescription medications or U.S. Navy Seaman Trina McDonald’s darting eyes when she ventures into public with her family. PTSD is higher among military women who are raped than men who see combat.

Dick interviews retired military and civilian experts to verify and comment on all of this, too, as well as current military spokespeople who frustratingly toe the party line. Whom we don’t hear from, though, are the alleged attackers—they’re not even named. Whether requests for interviews were turned down or never made isn’t revealed. Either way, it’s a missed opportunity—not necessarily because the result would be more objective but because it would offer important insight into the culture that allows this to happen.

The Invisible War’s call to action is already working: Two days after watching Dick’s documentary, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta directed military commanders to hand over all sexual assault investigations to higher-ranking colonels and announced the establishment of a Special Victims Unit in each branch of service. There’s still more to be done, but seeing this film is an important first step.

Director: Kirby Dick
Writer: Kirby Dick
Starring: Kori Cioca, Jessica Hinves, Ariana Klay, Trina McDonald, Elle Helmer, Hanna Sewell, Myla Haider, Paula Coughlin
Release Date: June 22, 2012