Review of The Documentary, "The Invisible War"
The Problem As It Stands
The Invisible War details many facets of systemic corruption in the perpetration and prosecution of sexual assault within the United States Military. It also introduces us to the very real suffering of a number of victims and the over-all prevalence of the problem. Finally it discusses the lack of any real plan for the prevention of victimization despite multiple congressional hearings and subsequent legislative acts. Documented is a history of silently condoned sexual abuse, legislative struggle, and prosecutory malfeasance.
The perpetrators protected by the military are best classified as repeat offense sexual predators. Often fueled by alcohol or guilty of pre-meditated drugging, their victims for the most part (80%) do not report the often repeated incidents of sexual assault. Because the perpetrator is often a friend of their unit commanders (if not the unit commander themselves) even those few that seek justice often have it obstructed by the Military chain of command. Enlisted service members are twice as likely to have a history of perpetrating sexual abuse as their civilian counterparts.
Although more men experience military sexual trauma as a whole, women service members are especially vulnerable as measured by total percentage assaulted and harassed (around 23%-33% of women versus 1% of males). In 2010, the Department of Defense estimated the number of new assaults to be around 19,000. Many of these victims, while dealing with the aftermath of PTSD, become substance abusers, undergo major depressive episodes, and may become homeless. Those who do come forward often find themselves the focus of incredulous superiors and are not uncommonly charged with adultery and conduct unbecoming.
Because of the military mentality of cohesion and loyalty the victims are often not merely assaulted but scarred by a sense of betrayal. This is described in the film as, “akin to what happens in a family with incest.” Perjury warnings coming from officers with no legal training and the possibility of professional retaliation leaves these victims feeling re-victimized by the system itself. Indeed, rates of PTSD are higher amongst women with military sexual trauma than amongst men with combat trauma.
Causes for Optimism?
The victims that file for benefits as a result of injuries sustained during the assault or for PTSD are placed in perpetuity on VA waiting lists as a unique result of combined indifference, systemic corruption, and the sheer volume of backlogged VA claims stemming from over a decade of war. Victims describe the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) initiative as an ineffectual campaign of posters and slogans meant only to help victims cope with being victims rather than arresting the problem.
A contingent of victims filed a lawsuit against ex-Secretary of Defense Gates and the then current Secretary Rumsfeld alleging the overuse of a system that deprives victims of their constitutional rights. This lawsuit was struck down in December of 2011, using the precedent set by the Feres Document to rule that, “Rape is an occupational hazard of serving in the Military.”
One spot of dim hope resulted from current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta taking the power to prosecute Military sexual assault cases away from unit commanders after he viewed this documentary. Victims and victims’ advocates believe that taking this power away from the military and placing it in civilian hands will be a step toward justice for future victims.