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Blowing Down The Barracks

THE INVISIBLE WAR (2012), directed by Kirby Dick, produced by Amy Ziering –

With an aesthetic that is strategically subservient to its goal of creating policy change, The Invisible War’s human drama rolls out in a perfectly calibrated series of emotional interviews of survivors of military sexual assault (MSA), their advocates and therapists.The antagonists, director Kirby Dick makes clear, are not the violent criminals masquerading as soldiers, officers or heroes; but the systemic judicial dysfunction of the nation’s armed services, which manifests as stonewalling, intransigence and incompetence.

The prologue to the film is a series of filmed recruitment ads aimed at women—presenting the public relations campaign the military has used to sell itself from WW2 to the present. Dick eschews the liberal pacifist gambit of  moral keel-hauling the military for its cluelesness and brutishness; to do so would work at counter purposes to the advocacy work this doc is trying to build. The filmmaking itself disappears  into the tremulous perspective of the survivors and their families.  The main subjects are highly credible, attractive and appealingly candid. Except for the one male, all are blonde and Anglo. (The choice was not intentional but it is curious nevertheless. Does it make the plea for justice from the command structure of the military more effective?) These aren’t the sort of people to question the military’s prima facie legitimacy: nearly all of the MSA survivors interviewed come from backgrounds where military service is deeply venerated. One of the women had family in the military dating back to the Revolution. Because of their unquestioning faith in the institution, the fate that befell them had the added dimension of  crushing disillusionment.  The women subjects are tough and spunky  with nary a Valley-girl twang to their speech patterns. Their voices are well modulated to monotonic; tears sparingly shown. They are severely traumatized, some with physical injuries, or with PTSD from the assaults, which were often multiple, with no recourse…quite the opposite, these soldiers faced persecution for speaking out about being assaulted.

The soldier subjects begin by telling the stories of their high hopes upon joining up, whether following a family tradition, or looking for a challenge, all echoing the ubiquitous phrase “to serve my counrty.” Sometime after basic training is over, usually when the soldier is still new, the rape happens, and the perpetrator gets away with it. Evidence is mishandled and lost. Some of the victimized service members are charged with adultery (“They charged me with adultery…but he was married,” one woman explained). Others are discharged with no benefits. What emerges is the picture of a lower command structure (colonels on down) that cares only for self-preservation, and a dismally insentient superior command. The dirtiest secret  this film exposes is that most of the perpetrators of rape within the armed services are serial offenders. Many offenders had committed rape before joining up. The military macho culture of victim-shaming combined with flaccid enforcement creates a perfect playground for habitual rapists. They commit their crimes with impunity and then creep up the command structure or leave the military with full benefits to join into civilian communities.

The liberal establishment here and abroad averts its gaze from victims of military injustice inside the institution. There has been plenty of attention to rape and sexual misconduct by soldiers perpetrated on civilians–comfort women, rape as a weapon of war–but rarely has the spotlight hit the subject of this particular form of violence within the military. The media has treated the issue only in an incident based way, such as the Tail Hook Scandal of the 1990s. Because it is a world unto itself, civilians—even close family members of soldiers—have little insight on the internal machinations of military life.  The “liberal pacifist” perception goes something like this…The Armed Service is a deeply insular world which wraps its soldiers in a social and economic comfort blanket of camaraderie, esteem and financial security as compensation for the dark obligations of armed combat against whomever the state deems a foe, despite the legitimacy or illegitimacy of that claim. The only reason kids join up is that they don’t know any better or have no other economic options. Once in, they learn useful habits and skills in a highly structured environment. The innocent and the guilty (i.e. “the enemy”, guilty of being born into a different nationality) are separated out into categories. The soldiers learn how to kill and carry large weapons to enforce the will of the state by force if necessary. This is central to the purpose of the military, and the euphemisms for it are “service to your country”or “patriotic duty.”

That is a rough rendering of the liberal carapace of concepts about the military that needed to be cracked for a film like The Invisible War to find support. As a response to the fact of women getting raped in the service, it is a variation on the “Well She Asked For It” retort that rape victims get all the time. “The military has an issue with violence, what a surprise”, a friend quipped. Indeed, read any of the easy-to-find blogs put up by people in the armed services and you can have a taste of the swagger and specialness our U.S. soldiers.

Dick’s response is to clear out of his way all counter-cultural critiques of the military. His strategy is to let the argument unfold as if gathering its own force, one fragment of testimony at a time building on the previous towards an inexorable endpoint; to make a film that is not oppositional, but to frame the issue in such a way as to make an unassailable argument for change. To cast the military in a negative light, to separate ideologically from the soldiers and veterans who are so deeply connected to the military would  weaken the case, and weaken the solidarity that simple human compassion demands in the face of injustice. Part of the strategy and an extension of the act of making this film has been a political and social activist campaign aimed at the “grass tops”, people who have access to powerful figures in the government. This has been spear-headed by Amy Ziering, the film’s producer, an indefatigable voice for the cause. In the case of the armed services change can and must occur from the top down, through a policy change in enforcement aimed at changing the culture.

So far, the strategy appears to be having an effect. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta  is said to have watched the film and was “shocked, moved and affected.” Within a week he proposed a rule to take rape investigation and prosecution out of the hands of the commanders of the units in which the crimes took place. The Joint Cheifs of Staff have issued a statement condemning rape and encouraging “prevention” over “prosecution,” and that soldiers must watch their drinking. The “idiot wind” is not surprising and reminiscent of the response from the MPAA after Dick’s “This Film is Not Yet Rated.” Dick points out that to prosecute is the best prevention, since so many of the offenders are serial rapists…a fact that seems not to have gotten through the brass heads. Nor has there been any word on reopening some of the cases highlighted in this film or the hundreds of others that have been dismissed without invesitgation. Though it may be true that moral outrage seems to be a highly principled game of whack-a-mole in this world of one percent versus the rest of us, the case made in The Invisible War is too compelling to walk away from.

For screenings, visit invisiblewarmovie.com.  Opens in theaters June 22.

Comments

  1. Richard Davis says:

    Exactly. And having traumatized military husbands and fathers, sometimes still in uniform, expressing rage and sorrow. The before (bright, cheerful, hopeful) and after (wary, anxious, sad) faces of the women give meaning to the word ‘survivors’ often applied to them in the film. The film never slips its focus or allows something else, the military itself, to become the issue. And yet I heard criticisms on NPR from ‘Invisible War’ viewers like ‘A gross exaggeration!’ or ‘The military takes care of its own and would never allow this to happen!’.

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