The Invisible War

Several weeks ago I stopped to get take out. While I was waiting for my food, I struck up a conversation with the college student who took my order. When I asked what she planned to do after college, she said, “I was thinking about going in the Air Force, but then I watched The Invisible War.” I spent the rest of the time waiting for my food explaining to this student that not all women who join the military are raped. I wasn’t (harassed, yes; raped, no) and neither were my female friends who served. I was bothered, though, by the fact that this film held information that convinced this student not to serve her country, and I decided that I needed to watch the movie for myself. And now I have.

The Invisible War is a 2012 documentary on the topic of rape in the military, now commonly referred to as Military Sexual Trauma or MST. It has won several awards, including the Audience Award at the Sundance and Seattle Film Festivals and the Nestor Almendros Award for Courage in Filmmaking at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, and is on the Air Force Chief of Staff’s 2014 reading list. The documentary consists of a series of interviews with former military members who were raped by fellow servicemembers. These interviews are interspersed with interviews with their spouses, family, and lawyers who have filed lawsuits on behalf of these servicemembers, interviews with top brass in charge of policy and sexual assault prevention, and clips of Congressional hearings.

In addition to discussing the individual stories, the documentary addresses the issue that is, perhaps, the hardest thing for a victim to overcome – the sense of betrayal. Not just by the assailant, but by their command. Many of the women in the documentary state that, following the rape, they were brought up on charges of adultery, because their rapist was married, or conduct unbecoming, or had been forced to remain in a single duty station for the duration of the investigation, thereby tanking their careers, or the details of their case had been leaked to their new command and their reputation was called into question.

It also covers the issue of lack of recourse. Many of the women claim that, although they were punished, nothing was done to the perpetrators. In fact, in what I found to be one of the most impactful parts of the documentary, the current status of these servicemembers’ attackers was listed. In all the cases listed, the attackers remained in the military, some of them even being promoted or named “Airman of the Year,” or were honorably discharged years later. No punishment. No label of sexual predator. Not even the right to sue, as twenty-plus women and three men attempted to do.

Overall, I thought the documentary was well made. Given that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men screened by a VA provider responded that they had been the subject of MST, I also consider it relevant. I found the stories of these individuals to be truly crushing and, even more so, the stories their spouses told. I think the basic point they are making – bringing attention to both rape within the armed services as well as the barriers to having assailants brought to justice – are ones that need to be discussed.

There were a few instances where I thought the creators stretched things a bit, such as having one of the victims read a suicide letter she’d written to her mother or when they stated that the lawsuit the victims had brought against the former Defense Secretaries was dismissed because the court considered rape an “occupational hazard” for women, when the legal brief actually quotes a 1950s ruling (Feres vs United States) that states that the government cannot be held liable: “where the injuries arise out of or are in the course of activity incident to service.” I was also left with a few unanswered questions, such as did these women pursue civil criminal charges against their assailants and, if so, what was the impact of that, and were attempts made by the filmmakers to talk to the accused attackers or to obtain any documentation from the military concerning these allegations?

I find rape to be a disgusting and vulgar trauma that violates the very core beliefs that we are taught when we join the military. I think, with all the enemies there are out there wishing to do us harm, it is despicable that a servicemember would have to count another servicemember among them. That said, I still stand by what I told that college student – not every woman who joins the military gets raped and I would never discourage women from serving their country because of it.

Note: Out of curiosity, I researched how the percentage of military sexual assault cases, which the film puts at 20% of all women who serve, stacks up against the number of sexual assault cases reported on college campuses each year. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), the number is roughly 20-25% of female college students.

You can find out more about the film and watch the official trailer here.

You can find out if there is a screening scheduled in your area or follow the latest actions being taken in this “invisible war” here.

You can find the case information I quoted here.

And the information I quoted about the VA and MST here.

© 2014 – 2020, Sarah Maples LLC. All rights reserved.

Sarah Maples is a former Air Force intelligence officer and an Afghanistan veteran. She is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in veteran, military, and defense topics.

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