The Invisible War: Breaking the Silence Around Military Sexual Trauma

by | July 21, 2012
filed under Feminism, Politics

by Jessica Critcher

I recently watched a screening of The Invisible War, a heart-wrenching documentary about the epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the US military. I should probably state up front that I have deep and long-standing ties to the armed forces—I even got a military discount on my ticket to this film. In addition to grand parents and great-grand parents serving, my father served twenty years in the Marine Corps. So did my father-in-law. I have two brothers-in-law who served in the Army. My husband has been in the Coast Guard for almost five years and will probably make it a career. My younger brother is about to join the Navy. My younger sister is about to join the Air Force. To say this film and this issue strike close to home would be an understatement.

I expected to cry during this film. I expected to leave the theater with my eyes red and swollen because the subject matter is so painful. But I couldn’t cry. Instead, I endured a 90 minute panic attack. Tears are cathartic. Crying is an emotional release. There was no release while watching this film, because the emotions it inspires cannot be purged and forgotten. Days later I am still haunted by the survivors’ stories. This was not a pleasant film to watch. It’s an unpleasant topic that most would probably rather ignore. That’s the premise in a nutshell: this is horrific, and even though we don’t like to think about it, ignoring it won’t make it go away.

As a feminist with a particular interest in militarism, the disappointing statistics about Military Sexual Trauma (MST) were not new to me. And yet, no matter how much I study or talk about this issue, the information is always heart-breaking. In 2012, in the institutions that claim to be defending our freedom, rape is considered to be an occupational hazard. Here is a tiny portion of the information provided, as quoted by Al Jazeera:

Approximately 33 per cent of servicewomen and men don’t report their assault because the person to report to is a friend of the rapist; 25 per cent don’t report because the person to report to is the rapist. Incidents of rape triple in units where assault is tolerated, say analysts.

Part of what makes this so troubling is the fact that, historically, the military has provided many opportunities for women’s advancement. In World War II, the military invited women to join and to earn the same pay as men. To this day, military ranks and pay-grades are standardized and publicly available. In a country where the gender wage gap for civilians hasn’t budged since the 70’s, the military honors equal pay for equal work, with adjustments for cost of living.

The military was also desegregated in 1948, before “Separate but Equal” was deemed unconstitutional. They recently allowed gay and lesbian service members to serve openly, something many employers are still not ready to do. And, the military also offers socialized medicine, something critics of government-funded health care like to ignore. Yes, the American taxpayers covered my many doctor visits as a child, and they pay for my birth control today. Through this lens, the military could actually be considered progressive.

The reason I bring up these facts is not to sugarcoat the many problems inherent in the military or to defend its treatment toward the survivors of MST. These facts are to serve as reminders that the military is not unchangeable.

But more than changes in policy, ending this problem requires actual changes in consciousness. Think about how all of women’s advancements have been fought for and won—with perserverance. Women wanted the right to vote. They demanded it. They lobbied for it. They demonstrated in the streets. And they eventually got it, in a country that would not have otherwise extended the right.

Women have made similar incremental advances in the military. Initially they weren’t allowed on ships or given weapons. They were restricted to certain fields. They had to fight within the system for the status of veteran in addition to fighting their country’s wars. Little by little, they have been given piecemeal advancements. Women’s progress in the military is a microcosm of their advancement in the civilian world—a series of hard-won firsts. They are cracking the glass ceilings of submarines, overseas combat, Army Rangers and Navy SEALS. But few minds are actually changed.

The military allows women more rights in response to outside pressure. Meanwhile, women pioneering these fields are surrounded by men who vocally protested those advancements in the first place.

There are no quick solutions to this problem. You can order military personnel to allow women on submarines, but you can’t order them to respect those women. You can sign policy that makes sexual assault a more serious crime, but you can’t sign a policy forcing rapists to see women as full human beings. If a rapist has already made the decision to rape someone, a sexual harassment seminar is probably going over his head.

So what are we to do? Off the top of my head, I would suggest that this film be made required viewing for everyone currently serving in the armed forces. Not every service member is a rapist, but if we do not all take it seriously, the assaults will not stop. Secondly, I would suggest that the military create a national registry for military sex offenders. Since the film’s release, some changes in policy have already been implemented.

But that’s not enough either. Civilians likely see this as a military problem, and men in the military tend to see this as a women’s problem, if they choose to see it at all. But we should all be outraged—whether it’s as service members, spouses, voting citizens, or even just as human beings. We need to make “good soldier” and “rapist” mutually-exclusive terms.

I’ve been connected to the military my entire life. For better or worse, the military is my culture and my home. It saddens me to see women and men intimidated away from careers they love because of violence that has been inflicted on them. It saddens me even more that this problem has been allowed to continue for so long.

The military has a lot to offer women. They can learn skills, discipline, leadership, camaraderie and professionalism. They can earn good pay, a free college education and health insurance just for a willingness to serve. I don’t want to have to worry about my sister being assaulted for wanting these things. I don’t want to feel uncomfortable going on the Coast Guard base alone for fear of running into someone complicit in a horrific scandal that took place just minutes from my apartment. We have a right and a duty to fix this. As this film gains publicity and momentum, more and more voices join in collectively demanding change. Regardless of your opinions on the military, we can all agree that even one sexual assault is too many.

If you can see this film, see it. In any case, check out their website for news and calls to action. While we can’t change the situation overnight, we can at least tell the survivors they are not invisible.


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  • Di Brown

    Anti-Rape advocacy is a good thing – but I think you have missed the point of the film. To be raped is terrible, for a man or a woman. Far worse is to then be systematically revictimized by the structures and people who are supposed to help you. If, when a servicemember is raped, every person around them stood up for them, the culture change needed would occur. When those who are supposed to be your team and your protectors revictimize, humiliate, derail your career,and in general punish the victim while often rewarding/promoting the attacker, THIS is what creates the culture where that behavior thrives. The very phrase MST recognizes that for a servicemember, the initial rape is often the least of their woes. It would be a shame if all of those very significant things were lost by minimizing this film and this topic to being just another statement about rape, when it is so much more.