Power and Violence in the Safe Zones: 'The Invisible War'

The Invisible War explores not only the pervasiveness of sexual assault against service women in the military, it also exposes a judicial system and process that is so flawed that very rarely are the guilty punished.

The Invisible War

Director: Kirby Dick
Cast: Helen Benedict, Anu Bhagwati, Susan Burke
Distributor: New Video
Rated: Not Rated
Release date: 2012-10-23

The Invisible War explores not only the pervasiveness of sexual assault against service women in the military. The documentary also exposes a judicial system and process that is so flawed, very rarely are the guilty punished. The fact that women are so unprepared for the possibility of sexual harassment or assault demonstrates how effectively every branch of the military has kept the problem suppressed. Unfortunately, the film fails to delve deep enough into some of the points that are raised, many of the interviewees’ ranks and jobs are not clear or up to date, and some of the statistics are unsubstantiated.

According to journalist Amy Herdy, “In 1991, in Congressional testimony, it was estimated that 200,000 women had been sexually assaulted so far in the U.S. military,” she states. “If you take into account that women don’t report because of the extreme retaliation and that was more than a decade ago, I would say you could easily double that number.”

The film personalizes the statistics by interviewing a multitude of women of varying ranks and from every branch of the military. These women’s circumstances at the time of their assault may vary, but they all have the same outcome. The alleged perpetrators got away with their crimes.

Captain Anu Bhagwati (RET.) who is both a co-founder and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). “According to the Department of Defense, 3,230 women and men reported assault in the last fiscal year (2009).” However, even the DOD recognizes that as many as 80 percent of sexual assault victims do not file a report.

The Navy’s Director of Military Personnel Plans and Policy Rear Admiral Anthony Kurta states, “We have specifically trained Judge Advocates, our Navy lawyers and our Naval Criminal Investigative Service, those investigators are all specifically trained in sexual assault. Any report of a sexual assault is fully investigated in the U.S. Navy.”

Just like civilian victims of rape, military victims will have their credibility called into question. They wind up having to defend themselves or their behavior. Former Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) Sergeant Myla Haider was ordered to advise a victim of her rights for making a false statement. Miette Wells, a former U.S. Air Force Security Officer, states that all rape cases were given to men, because women were too sympathetic.

Susan Burke, an attorney, hears from victims that the worse part of being raped other than the assault itself, is the probability of professional retaliation. Many of the women interviewed for the film were told of the severe repercussions if they were found guilty of filing a false report. Some were charged with adultery, and they weren’t even married.

One reason for the proliferation of abuse is the high number of sex offenders in the military. A Navy study found that 15 percent of incoming recruits attempted or committed rape before entering the military. This is twice the percentage of the equivalent civilian population. “Particularly for a savvy perpetrator, to work within a relatively closed system like the military; it becomes a prime target rich environment for a predator,” says Brigadier General Loree Sutton (Ret.) Sutton, who was the highest ranking psychiatrist in the Army as well as the founder and former director of Defense Centers for Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injuries.

Why are there no safeguards in place to prevent people with a past history of sexual harassment or assault from joining the military? We know that the United States’ involvement in two lengthy wars has been a drain on resources. There is no question that certain standards have been lowered to enlarge the recruiting pool. The film doesn’t delve deep enough into this area.

It’s not just female soldiers who are being assaulted. “I think one of the last bits of research showed that about one percent of males had been victims of sexual assault within the past year in the military,” states Russell Strand, the current chief of the Family Advocacy Law Enforcement at the U.S. Army Police School. “That equals to about 20,000.”

"The shame, as bad as it is for women, is even worse for men because it’s all tied in with homophobia,” states Helen Benedict author of The Lonely Soldier. It should be stressed that the majority of men raping other men are not homosexual. Everyone is so concerned about the ramifications of gays serving openly in the military while it is heterosexual soldiers perpetrating most sex crimes. “This is not an issue of sexual orientation. This is simply an issue of power and violence,” states Captain Anu Bhagwati (RET.)

There have been incidents where the military has been unable to cover up particularly egregious incidents of sexual misconduct. In 1991, the worst case of sexual harassment in the Navy’s history was exposed. At the 35th Annual Tailhook Association Symposium in Las Vegas, it was revealed that officers had full knowledge of an activity known as the gauntlet. This former type of military punishment required the offender to run between two rows of men, who would strike the person with objects such as switches or weapons. In the case of Tailhook, hundreds of men lined a hotel hallway waiting to harass and assault male and female soldiers.

There was an investigation but after 1,500 interviews, the Navy’s Inspector General reported that his investigators were being stonewalled. Nobody was talking. There is much more information regarding this scandal than what is acknowledged in the film. The incident is merely touched upon, with important details regarding repercussions in the aftermath of the incident not even discussed.

In 1996, the Army came under scrutiny for multiple incidents that occurred at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, an Army base located in Maryland. Thirty women had filed complaints of sexual harassment and assault that ranged from unsolicited touching to rape and forced sodomy. Again, the film fails to discuss the final outcome of this scandal.

The Invisible War does spend an extended period of time exploring the flaws in the military justice system when it comes to sex crimes. “In our system of military justice, it is the commander who’s responsible to the chain of command for how that investigation proceeds,” states Rear Admiral Anthony Kurta. It is therefore up to one individual to determine the felonious nature of sexual assault allegations. “The problem in the military is the convening authority, who is not legally trained, makes the final decision,” states Captain Greg Rinckey (RET.), a former member of the U.S. Army JAG Corps.

“Sometimes it takes a different kind of action to cause change to come and sometimes that’s a lawsuit, “says Brigadier General Wilma L Vaught (RET.). Military brat and attorney Susan Burke filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of 16 men and women seeking to bring former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates to justice. “The lawsuit alleges that they have overseen a system that has deprived rape survivors of their constitutional rights,” states Burke. What is perhaps most shocking about this lawsuit is the small number of plaintiffs in comparison to the number of victims.

“You want there to be a system akin to a civilian system where you go to the police, and the crime is tried by an impartial judicial system,” says Burke “You cannot be impartial when you are already involved with people in other settings.” According to the film, in December 2011, the Court dismissed the survivors’ lawsuit ruling that rape is an occupational hazard of military service.

The ramifications of the rampant sexual assaults in the military are far reaching. All of the women interviewed said they would do everything in their power to discourage their daughters from enlisting in the military.

Many young women have an idealistic view of serving in the armed forces, often passed on to them by male members of their family. If a woman plans to join the military, she needs to look beyond all of the promises and propaganda and consider the dangers of working and living in such a male-dominated and aggressive environment. Women need to be informed of the statistics and determine whether or not the service experience is worth the risk.

This is not just a military problem. What happens when a sexual predator in the military re-enters society? He is now a risk to the civilian population. Even if an assailant has been through some sort of judicial process, chances are he didn’t serve time, and he is better educated on how to get away with future attacks.

The film does end on at least one promising note. In April 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta viewed The Invisible War. Two days later, he took the decision of whether or not to prosecute sexual assault cases out of the hands of unit commanders.

The Special Features include an audio commentary with director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering. The Sundance Post-screening Speak Out is a discussion group with the victims featured in the documentary as well as other military sexual assault survivors. There is an extended interview with victim Regina Vasquez as well as an interview with her husband who did not appear in the film. There is footage of a retreat arranged by VetWOW founder Susan Avila-Smith. VetWow is an advocacy group for men and women affected by military sexual trauma.

Finally, the filmmaker explores PTSD therapy. In particular, the Moonfall Ranch in Colorado that serves as a resource for veterans suffering from PTSD and Military Sexual Trauma. John Nash, director of Moonfall Ranch, is a Vietnam veteran who believes in the healing therapy of horses.


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