One of the most rattling news stories to emerge near the end of 2012 noted that reported sexual assaults were up dramatically at U.S. military academies during the year, a rise of 23 percent. That is alarming, but there is potentially a positive element to that jump, and it is discernible in one key word: “reported.” There is a value in the problem being brought more into the open and some amount of hope that a commonly covered-up dilemma is instead being addressed, thanks in part to those who are increasingly willing to raises their voices. Kirby Dick’s documentary The Invisible War makes it harshly clear how pervasive sexual assault is in the U.S. military, and furthers the damning tale by noting all the systematic ways that the leadership contorts itself to minimize the grave importance of the problem, coldly prioritizing the reputation of an institution over the well-being of its members. As many of the survivors note in the film, bravely looking right into the camera and telling their stories, the emotional scars left on them are deeper and harsher because they had once believed in the band-of-brothers supportive unity of the military. Instead, they suffered as the shared sanctification of safety of fellow enlisted personnel twisted into the cruelest sort of lie. Dick has occasionally been a misguided provocateur with previous films, but with Invisible War he is a cinematic journalist of the utmost integrity, doggedly pursuing the underlying problems that have led to the compounding of the indignity of the assaults, effectively revictimizing people for years, especially as veterans support apparatuses deteriorate in effectiveness with every new phone call to report lingering physical damage or recurring psychological trauma.
The recent announcement by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifting the ban on women in combat led to predictable commentary from the sort of partisan imbeciles who are always at the ready to offer overheated condemnations of any policy shift offered by a Democratic administration. One of the regularly deployed talking points suggests the presence of women in a combat environment will necessarily lead to sexual assaults, as if the vaunted discipline of the military these same figures are quick to cheer about when it suits their war-mongering purposes is a fungible thing, easily replaced by animalistic abandon at the first sight of a shapely, exposed calf. Beyond the inherent contradiction of imposing helplessness before warped biological urges on supposedly noble warriors, it inverts the blame for the individual assaults, placing it not on the perpetrator but on the vixen who triggered it. (It also ignores that assaults have often taken place that have no women involved whatsoever, but are instead male-on-male, because sexual assault is a assertion of power not an expression of desire; Dick’s film admirably addresses this directly.) The Invisible War offers the clear argument that the problem isn’t with the women whose choice to wear the uniform of their country is as praiseworthy as the corresponding sacrifice made by any man, but is instead with the many systems that have left them abandoned at every step of the way. The film is tough to watch at times, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be required viewing.