Uncovering military sexual trauma in The Invisible War
Hanna Sewell’s treatment by her superiors was so appalling that she planned to hang herself from a flagpole with a sign declaring that she’d been raped. She’s one of the sexual assault victims who goes before the camera in The Invisible War—a devastating expose of the epidemic levels of sex crime in the US military, released on DVD last week.
The carnage on display in Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s film is unthinkable. By the US Defense Department’s own (presumably conservative) figures, only 14 percent of some 23,000 sexual assaults were reported in 2011. Of that figure, a mere 191 men were convicted at courts-martial.
Numbers aside, The Invisible War makes its point in a series of searing personal testimonies from people like Trina McDonald, who was serially drugged and raped on a remote Alaskan Navy base. Her phone calls for help were monitored and cut-off. Or Kori Cioca, whose assault was so violent that she’s been on a diet of soft food and a cocktail of pharmaceuticals ever since. In either case, nobody was charged.
Most victims tend not to report their assault because they are, as one of the film’s participants puts it, “basically told to suck it up.” Another describes the institutional response as “professional retaliation.” In some instances, victims were made to report to the same senior officer who raped them. Records were deliberately lost. Cases were allowed to die. One woman relates that her assailant walked away without a blemish while she was charged with adultery. “I wasn’t married,” she says. “He was.” Military courts deemed rape as “an occupational hazard.”
Gradually it becomes clear that going on the record for Dick and Ziering was another potential hazard. “I think the Pentagon as a whole has fortunately decided not to go after people that were involved in getting this story out,” Dick tells the Straight, in a call from LA. “Historically they’ve done the opposite. That is a good sign. That’s a step forward.” Equally, he notes, the case he and Ziering make in The Invisible War is “a hard thing to dodge.”
“The entire intent in making this film was to make the case as strong as we could that this was a systemic problem; that it happens everywhere, in every branch, overseas and domestically. So there was no way for them to dodge it and say it was one particular perpetrator, one base, one time—no.”
There have been other advances since The Invisible War blazed a trail across the festival circuit last year. “Leon Panetta elevated the decision to investigate and prosecute these crimes from the level of unit commander to the level of colonel, or navy captain,” Dick explains. “What he didn’t do, and what absolutely needs to be done, is that it needs to be moved outside of the chain of command, otherwise there’s still vast opportunities for conflict-of-interest.”
Perhaps most importantly, for now, The Invisible War has “changed the discussion around this issue.” Equally, Dick and Ziering’s work has provided catharsis for an unknown number of people, along with the women and men (yes, men) who braved the process of talking.
“It’s very difficult, but I think, really, for everyone who was in this film, the experience was very validating,” he says. “So many survivors that we encountered, they blame themselves, nobody believes them—certainly nobody with authority. I know that two of the spouses came up to me and said, ‘This film saved our marriage.’”
Dick describes it as gratifying work. It’d have to be; getting this close to something so painful takes its toll on the filmmaker, too. As the director notes, “You’re hearing this incredibly traumatic story that’s making this very powerful impact on you. At the same time, I’m thinking, ‘I can use this.’ As emotional as I am, I’m also continually thinking and analyzing how I can utilize these very emotional moments to make this case so that tens of thousands of other men and women won’t be assaulted.”