Kirby Dick uncovers a truly awful trend in the armed forces, a conspiracy of forced silence.
Dir. Kirby Dick, 2012, 97 min
I’ve seen many documentaries that have made me want to punch a hole in a wall, but it’s been a while since any movie enraged me the way The Invisible War did. My mouth ran dry, I could barely sit still, and I was on the verge of tears more than a few times. This is the kind of film that needs a trigger warning played before it, a truly upsetting experience that’s nonetheless absolutely vital, because it concerns an immensely pressing issue.
The movie starts off in an exceptionally unnerving way. It’s at least ten minutes before it reveals what it’s about, and up till then it’s playing old-timey news clips about women serving in the military. It introduces several female service members, all talking about how proud they were of joining the fraternity of the armed forces, and the sense of honor and discipline it brought to them. And then, one by one, they talk about how they were raped.
Here are a few of the plain, terrible statistics. A woman in the military is more likely to be raped by a comrade than killed doing their duty. Somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty percent of female soldiers have been raped, adding up to nearly half a million women over the years. Since there are proportionally way more men than women in the military, an even greater number of men have also been raped. Almost ninety percent of service members who suffer such assaults don’t report them, out of fear of repercussions against themselves. This fear is well-founded, since those who do report their rapes find themselves more often than not the target of suspicion and ostracism. The rate of serious punishment for sexual predators is pathetically low. Overall, the rate of rape in the military is far higher than in the civilian population.
But it isn’t solely a military problem; since most rapists go unpunished, they get to go free into the regular population, where they are quite likely to continue to rape. After all, sexual predation is very rarely a one-time crime. This is a near-epidemic, and it’s supported by a system that has no idea how to handle the realities of rape. Despite all our advances in killing technology, our military is in many ways still a dinosaur, sticking to an outdated idea of muscularity that allows no room for “weakness.” But the awful fact is that you can become a victim no matter how “strong” you are.
There are many women (and one man) speaking out about their trauma in this film, but if there’s a main character, it’s Kori Cioca, a former member of the Coast Guard who is still troubled by her jaw, which was dislocated during her rape. The VA continually refuses to give her the assistance she needs to fix her problems, but her wounds run much deeper than that. We see in this doc how drastically rape affects a person. Women who are raped suffer harsher PTSD than men troubled by combat. It pervades one’s life, destroys your sense of self, and worms its way into your relationships with others. No one is wholly the same after this terrible experience, and the military’s monstrous reaction to this epidemic only makes things worse.
One thing that the film does extremely well is try to prescribe solutions to the problem without resorting to pat answers or faux inspiration. It spends a good chunk of time following several women, including Kori, as they seek legal means of obtaining justice. But even that only leads to the doc’s single biggest outrage: their lawsuit is dismissed by the Supreme Court, which finds that rape is an “occupational hazard” for women in this field. It’s the culmination of all the terrible, misogynistic attitudes on display here rolled together. It’s a moment of outrage so intense that it’s almost cathartic. It expresses the fundamental wrongness at the root of this problem so succinctly. It made me want to set something on fire.
There are no quick fixes to this problem. The Invisible War recognizes that, and tempers its calls for action, which are nonetheless righteous and heartfelt. But there’s no escaping the feeling of dispirited defeat that the brave women speaking out about their trauma suffer. They’ve been betrayed by what was essentially their family, and that’s something they may never be able to get over. I’m not exactly fond of the army, but even so, watching these people bitterly confess that they’re glad to never have to wear a uniform again, and that they’d strongly discourage their daughters from ever joining, just broke my heart. This is an exhausting movie, and there’s not much light offered at the end, but it knows where to find hope. It’s in the fact that the first step to progress is breaking silence. That’s what these women have done, and while it doesn’t mend their emotional scars, it’s a positive step. That’s all the hope you can find in this issue.