It’s Oscar week, so I decided I’d get in on the fun by watching a nominated film that touches on my pet issues and doing a little write-up. Of course, “fun” in this case means watching a devastating documentary about rape in the military and then attempt to write about it while sniveling into my cardigan sleeve. But the blog’s called Lady Troubles, not “Ladies Enjoying Their Careers & Never Getting Assaulted” and I figure we all know what we’re in for, so let’s have at it.
The Invisible War has been nominated for best documentary feature, and if you’re an irascible activist-type you won’t even be able to get through the title sequence without cringing and/or yelling at the screen so loudly you startle the dog (don’t worry, he’s used to it). The film opens with vintage 1950s footage of an Army recruitment reel, in which the perky narrator reassures us that for the military’s female soldiers, “The value placed by the Women’s Army Corps on meticulous grooming and feminine grace is one of the first lessons learned by the recruit.” Are you offended yet? Because I should warn you that that is probably the least infuriating thing you’ll hear as the film unfolds and several soldiers, both male and female, recount not only their sexual assaults, but their further brutalization by a military hierarchy that had everything to gain by silencing them.
Instead of offering victims the protection they expected from an institution that encourages—no, make that requires—soldiers to treat it as a quasi-familial unit, military command routinely dismisses assault charges, declines to prosecute rapists and punishes victims for coming forward, using a lethal combination of slut-shaming, victim-blaming and professional retaliation. And the rape survivors, from the moment of their victimization through the protracted, years-long legal and administrative battles that follow, are completely at the mercy of this massive bureaucracy that abides by no laws but its own. One thing that struck me early on in the film was a soldier, Trina, who said of her first day as the only woman at a remote Alaskan posting: “I never wanted to turn around and leave so much in my life. But I couldn’t.” And that’s the thing, the military isn’t a regular job, you can’t just quit. You sign a binding contract in which you agree not only to work there for a set period of time, but also to be subject to its specialized laws, one of which specifically prohibits you from suing the military for injuries you incur on active duty. Trina went on to be drugged and raped by her fellow soldiers on several occasions before finally being discharged. She now suffers from debilitating PTSD, but good luck getting the VA to cover that because apparently rape is just an occupational hazard of military service. You, like carpal tunnel, only your life is totally destroyed.
What makes Invisible War so powerful is that all of the entirely damning critiques of the military justice system come from within the ranks: from the enlisted victims themselves, and from their fathers, husbands and wives, many of whom are career military, and all of whom are now deeply disillusioned with an institution they once revered. This seems also to be the key to the film’s success in actually getting some response from the Department of Defense; former Defense Secretary Panetta changed some reporting rules on his way out the door as a result of watching the film, and it was referenced in Chuck Hagel’s recent nomination hearings to fill Panetta’s old post.
The fact that the film is influencing a critical policy discussion in real time is enough of a reason to root for it to win the Academy Award. It’s also just a really affecting piece of cinema, which generally isn’t enough to get you an Oscar, but may give me a reason to tune in for Sunday’s broadcast other than to make fun of people’s outfits, which I will probably also be doing. The Invisible War is streaming on Netflix and downloadable on iTunes. Go watch it, have some tissues handy, and try not to scare your dog with all the yelling.