military sexual trauma

The Invisible War Exposes the Banality of Sexual Violence in the US Military

by Tracy Bealer

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. Read more

Posted on by Tracy Bealer in Feminism, Politics, Pop Culture 1 Comment

VIFF: The Invisible War and The World Before Her

by Jarrah Hodge

So it’s Vancouver International Film Festival time, and I had the chance to check out two great documentaries yesterday, along with Q&As with both directors.

The first movie I saw was Kirby Dick’s documentary The Invisible War, which Jessica Critcher covered for this blog in July. In case you missed that post, The Invisible War is a heart and gut-wrenching look at the rape of service members in the US Military – the problem of the attacks themselves as well as the problems survivors face with reporting and obtaining justice. The main thing that struck me was the incredible courage of these women (and one very brave man) to come forward and share their traumatic experiences, often after having been shut down repeatedly by commanding officers, the VA, and military leadership. It made me really angry to see how people who were victimized were re-victimized through such things as having medical benefits denied, being charged with adultery (this happened to two single women in the movie who were raped by married men), being discharged while the attackers remained at their posts, and just generally not having their reports taken seriously.

The Q&A with Kirby Dick helped shed light on what the filmmakers had been hoping for in terms of policy changes. When asked about the potential for civilian oversight of these cases, he said, “That would probably never happen in the United States,” due to the power of the military. When the movie was made, decisions to act on reports were almost always made by the direct commander, who was often a friend of the rapist or the rapist themselves. Dick was happy Defence Secretary Leon Panetta had moved quickly after the movie was released to push the decision to act up the chain of command to higher authorities, but said what they were aiming for was ideally to get the decision to prosecute moved outside of the chain of command.

He also argued that making real changes in the military would benefit society, citing the success of the military’s programs to fight racism in the service around the time of the Vietnam War, which at one point led to lower levels of measured racism in the forces compared to society at large. He noted that if good values are taught to new recruits, most of whom are young and aggressive, then those values are passed on to wider society upon discharge.

“They could be taught values around respecting women, respecting others,” Dick argued, saying this would be an opportunity for a stronger military and society. Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Can-Con, Pop Culture 1 Comment

The Invisible War: Breaking the Silence Around Military Sexual Trauma

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. Read more

Posted on by Jessica Critcher in Feminism, Politics 1 Comment