In Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, she argues that profound historical evils are not usually committed by deranged psychopaths, but rather otherwise ordinary people who have been conditioned through state institutions to accept and perpetuate dehumanizing fictions about other human beings.
The Invisible War (now available on DVD and streaming on Netflix), filmmaker Kirby Dick’s 2012 documentary on the epidemic of sexual violence in all branches of the United States military, extends this thesis to not only the perpetrators of rape and sexual assault, but also the command structure that actively colludes with military justice to shield these criminals from prosecution, and to stigmatize and in some cases criminalize the male and female victims.
There isn’t anything particularly innovative or groundbreaking in the form or style of The Invisible War. What is shocking, sickening, and enraging is the content. The film chronicles the stories of a half dozen former servicewomen and servicemen in detail, with their individual traumas meant to stand for the thousands of women who endured the twin betrayals of physical and institutional violation while serving. To the film’s credit, it also includes the often overlooked voices of male victims of sexual assault. In so doing, The Invisible War implicitly asserts the truth that rape is not about sexual desire, but rather violence and domination.
Though each interviewee’s story of escalating harassment and stalking culminating in rape is treated with dignity and care, the similarities among the accounts, particularly in the treatment of the victims after reporting the crimes, reveal the way misogyny and sexual violence have become institutionalized into military culture. The women and men endure not only physical but also emotional and professional violation, as their experiences are alternately dismissed, devalued and denied by the military commanders who held (until a recent directive by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta) the sole authority to prosecute their rapists.
The psychic toll of this erasure is profound and wide-reaching. The victims speak of their struggle to maintain healthy relationships and satisfying careers while trying to heal from the lingering physical and emotional wounds wrought by both the intimate violence and the professional betrayal. Each interviewee entertained thoughts of self-harm, and the majority attempted suicide. These servicepeople were so deeply committed to the military ethos of comradeship that one psychologist compares the sexual transgression as commensurate with incest.
The Invisible War concludes with the dismissal of a civil lawsuit brought against former Secretaries of Defense Rumsfeld and Gates on the grounds that rape is an occupational hazard of military service. Chillingly, and heartbreakingly, the film makes a compelling case that the culture of misogyny, dominance, and violence has become so endemic and accepted that this judgment has become true.
Not only the crimes and the victims, but also the system that excuses and enables sexual violence has become invisible through repeated, conscious and unapologetic cover-ups by the military hierarchy. However, as with any structure that operates upon injustice and dehumanization, it takes an enormous amount of individual and institutional energy to erase the suffering and silence the outrage. There is a vulnerability intrinsic to iniquity, and it is exploited through exposure. The Invisible War creates a space for the female and male victims to speak their truth to the powerful, but hopefully unsustainable, culture of willful ignorance that surrounds sexual violence in the military. This film could be one of the pebbles that prompts an avalanche of resistance and protest to this institutionalized cruelty.