Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Invisible War Movie Review

When I was growing up there were these laughably ineffective TV messages aimed at kids to ward them away from drugs. They usually featured some variation on a good clean looking kid being approached out of the shadows by some shady older kid offering drugs and calling him a chicken for refusing. We always laughed at the absurdity of these ads because they looked nothing like anything we ever experienced. Every teenager knows that this is simply not how kids encounter drugs for the first time, or any time for that matter. The target message – “Just Say No” to drugs – was effectively lost for a complete failure to understand the issue.

I kept thinking about this while watching the second half of The Invisible War, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the disproportionally high incidence of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military. After devoting the first half to personal stories, director Kirby Dick changes gears to focus on the military’s idea of prevention of this appalling trend. A special program was developed along with training videos and an awareness campaign complete with posters advising female recruits to never go anywhere without a buddy, and other recruits to not keep silent when they witness something inappropriate. Most egregious of all is probably the ubiquitous slogan offering the helpful advice to “ask again when she’s sober.” It’s simply mind-boggling to think that in the 21st century anyone still believes that rape is something that mostly occurs while walking alone at night, not to mention that the prevention campaign is almost entirely aimed at turning victims into irresponsible women just asking for it.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the institutional blindness and cover-up when it comes to an epidemic that will only be changed through widespread soul-searching of how the military conducts investigations and real honest educational programs that seek to instill an understanding that women are not responsible for their own rapes.

I keep referring to women, but of course men have been the victims of sexual assault in the military as well. Initially we hear the details of enlistment, the particulars as to why six or seven women who chose to participate in the film decided to join the military. Gradually they reveal that they were raped. None of their stories are of the date rape variety where a night alone in a room with a man goes too far maybe or maybe not against her will. These are cases of violent and forcible rape, sometimes involving drugged women, sometimes involving more than one assailant, always entirely about a demonstration of masculine power over another.

The first six stories are devastating enough, but Dick withholds the real impact until after several have been told, when he reveals in brief cuts another dozen or fifteen additional rape victims talking about their assaults. The sheer enormity of the problem is illustrated in one fell swoop and suddenly you realize this is an institutional nightmare. What the film shows us that we maybe often forget is that rape is not a crime that disappears after the bruises heal. These women continue to live with the traumatic after-effects of their assaults. We’re told that PTSD in rape victims is often worse or found at a higher rate than men who’ve been in combat. Kori Cioca, the Coast Guard veteran whose story is really the centerpiece of the film, continues to live with a jaw that doesn’t allow her anything other than a soft diet, the result of being hit in the face before her rape. She also suffers terrible intimacy issues with her husband, also a Coast Guard veteran, who tries to be the very model of understanding. Imagine being the man whose wife recoils when you touch her hand or give her a hug? Dick shows us phone call after phone call to the Veterans Administration in which Cioca tries to learn the status of her claim for disability and medical coverage. It turns out she doesn’t meet the military disability requirements because she didn’t complete her full two years of service. Is this how we treat our service members? Sorry you were raped and couldn’t stand to stay at your post, but you don’t get full veterans benefits because you missed the cut off by a couple of months. If this doesn’t make your blood boil and your heart sink, you might want to check your humanity.

It’s easy to watch this film and get the sense that every woman in the military suffers sexual assault or that every man in the military is a potential rapist. I think that’s a dangerous idea. I understand why these women want little to do with the military and why they insist they will not permit their daughters to enlist, but it’s important to keep in mind, however prevalent these cases are – and I don’t deny that they occur at an alarmingly high rater – that the military is not necessarily a dangerous place for women to build a career. I do find it terribly ironic after viewing this film that the big discussion in the news today with regard to women in the military has to do with their service in combat roles, which has just been approved by Secretary of Defense Panetta. It seems there may be other important issues to tackle before worrying about women’s equality on the front lines.

As journalism, The Invisible War is almost top notch. As documentary filmmaking it is flawless in that it takes on a subject of grave importance, highlights multiple facets of the issue including touching on past incidents like the Navy Tailhook incident that stirred a public uproar. Then it takes on the people in authority who aren’t doing enough, generates a strong emotional reaction, and finally reveals that measures have been taken by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to make substantive change to the prosecution of these crimes – changes ordered in effect two days after Panetta viewed the film last year. That’s truly the remarkable thing here – that Dick has made a call to action and someone in a position to effect real change has done something. Still, it’s not enough as the film tells us in its closing. But this is a step in the right direction.

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