Can The Invisible War Help Put an End to Military Rape?

The Oscar-nominated documentary is painful to watch—but will hopefully, finally inspire real change.
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Cinedigm/Docurama Films

I was 20 years old when Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape was published in 1975. I was home from college and spent two days in my pajamas reading it from cover to cover. Even though I called myself a feminist and Gloria Steinem had spoken at my high school graduation and I went to a feminist college called Kirkland (long gone), I didn't know anything until I read this book. It both explained and changed everything I understood to be true about power, sex, and violence. And the real world.

Naïve me, I thought the world listened and changed, too. It really didn't. Thirty-seven years later, here is The Invisible War, which premiered on PBS last night.

This Oscar-nominated documentary tells the stories of women in the military who have been raped by fellow soldiers—usually superiors—and have not only watched their assailants go unpunished, but have been systematically denied the recourse given to any civilian who has been subjected to this crime and, worst of all, penalized for speaking out.

It's a disheartening déjà vu. A sense that this violent constant in the history of men and women was only quelled never stopped.

Watching this film is like reading Brownmiller's book all over again. Just last week an Air Force officer was arrested for sexual assault turned out to be the chief of the Air Force sexual assault prevention unit. Just last week a report issued from the Pentagon reported the incidence of sexual assault in the military is on the rise. That one same question went through my mind as I watched this film and read that book so many years ago.

Which is, of course, are you fucking kidding me?

The film focuses on the testimony of several women who were sexually assaulted, and in some cases were also beaten. There is also a wrenching account from a man who also was raped and suffered in silence for years.

The crimes are bad enough, the failure to prosecute the assailants and the punishment of the victims adds insult to their injuries; members of the military, unlike civilians, are not allowed to seek damages from the government. Small wonder only eight percent of military sexual assault cases are prosecuted.

The interviews with these women and men are the heart of the documentary and are presented with a pristine deference to their accounts of violation and retribution. These are women who are tough, proud, and well-trained. They loved their calling and were decimated. That the assailants were fellow soldiers added to the betrayal. One psychiatrist likens the trauma to incest.

The Invisible War is a tribute to the power of what the filmmakers proudly label advocacy journalism because significant changes have come to pass since the film debuted a year ago.

Progress includes screenings and statements of support by Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and current Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and numerous members of Congress. In addition, the Army, Air Force and National Guard began to use the film as a training tool. This past January, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which addresses sexual assault in the military, and sets up measures, including special victims units, to prevent professional retaliation as well as a mandatory climate for commanders to maintain standards of prevention and prosecution.

Presented by

Nancy Doyle Palmer is a journalist and screenwriter based in Washington, D.C. She also contributes to Washingtonian magazine and the Huffington Post.

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