The opening credits of “The Invisible War,” which won the audience favorite award for documentaries this year at Sundance, appear over a montage of archival footage tracing the history of female service in the US military. Some of the film clips are quite funny, with their patronizing and/or headscratching view of women in the service: WACs marching off to war, that sort of thing.
This is the last trace of humor to be found in the documentary. That’s as it should be. The subject of “The Invisible War,” rape in the US military and the Defense Department’s ineffective response to it, is deeply disturbing. On the other hand, a patronizing view toward female military service remains a constant throughout the documentary. That view isn’t held by writer-director Kirby Dick, best known for his 2006 documentary about the Hollywood rating system, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.” Rather, it’s a view held by too many members of the military, which is one reason for that ineffective response.
The statistics the documentary has to offer are troubling enough. To give just two examples, 20 percent of female veterans report having been sexually assaulted during military service; and the Defense Department estimates that 80 percent of such assaults go unreported. More troubling still are the stories that individual veterans relate of having been raped and the often callous or pro forma response they got from their commanding officers.
The documentary interviews women who served in all branches of the military. Many of them grew up in military families, and to see the outcome of their eagerness to serve is especially disheartening. Clearly, the filmmakers did their homework. There are many talking heads here. Too many, perhaps: A tighter edit might have made the documentary more compelling.
Among the interview subjects are legal experts, women’s advocates, congressmen, and a few Pentagon officials. There are enough of the last group to keep the documentary from seeming heavy-handed, but not so many as to address the numerous questions a viewer has about how such a rigidly by-the-book and bureaucratic institution as the military addresses such an intractable problem. The instructional video put out by the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office testifies to the military’s awareness of the problem — and how limited that awareness is.
Sexual assault is not a problem facing just enlisted personnel. Some of the rape victims interviewed in the film were officers. Nor is it a problem just for women. The percentage of sexual assaults on female service personnel is vastly greater than on males. But because there are so many more men than women in the military, the overall number of assaults on men is higher.
The person we spend the most time with is Kori Cioca, who served in the Coast Guard. Several years after her assault, she’s still trying to get disability status from the Veterans Affairs Department for injuries sustained when she was attacked. Cioca is one of several interviewees who talk about contemplating or having attempted suicide.
Sexual assault in the military isn’t going away. The percentage of women in the service keeps rising. Both experts and victims in the documentary make the same point: Relying on the chain of command is a recipe for trouble. Too often, a commanding officer wants to sweep an incident under the rug. “The problem in the military,” notes a sergeant now retired from the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, “is that the commanding authority, who’s not legally trained, makes the final decision.” Rules and regulations, which the military is very good at, are about behavior. Law is about justice. “The Invisible War” makes all too clear that the military isn’t very good at justice.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.