The Invisible War

Lieutenant Elle Helmer, U.S. Marine Corps, at the Vietnam War Memorial (Cinedigm Entertainment/Docurama Films)

Directed & Written by Kirby Dick
Produced by Amy Ziering & Tanner King Barklow
Released by Cinedigm Entertainment/Docurama Films
USA. 97 min. Not rated

yellowstar The human resources difficulties in today’s stretched U.S. military have made headlines for years—untreated and mistreated posttraumatic stress, inadequate and unresponsive veterans’ services, and unbecoming conduct. The Invisible War documents how these persistent problems are not only alarmingly magnified when service members turn on their own in the sexual abuse of men and women, but are disturbingly compounded by the command structure that ignores victims and protects perpetrators, even repeat offenders.

One of this angry film’s glaring tragedies is that this scandal isn’t a new revelation. There have been many investigations by journalists, rights organizations, several divisions of the Department of Defense, as well as Congress, all with damning—and still rising—statistics of reported assaults, estimates of unreported abuse, and the limp legal follow-up that makes military justice an oxymoron. Director Kirby Dick includes interviews with writers and military lawyers who have conducted these investigations, but the powerful rage against the system is carried by brave victims who detail virulent sexism, harassment, stalking, rape, repeated attacks, reprisals, and rebuffed complaints.

Shockingly, most of these assaults did not occur in the isolation of the theater of war, but at bases around the U.S., yet out of reach of civilian criminal laws. These service members, one man and a half-a-dozen women, are proud patriots who eagerly enlisted into military careers, followed by commendations, promotions and awards. Their interviews are supplemented by their own video diaries, made with digital cameras provided by the filmmakers, as they and their families deal with the frustrations of the legal and medical follow-up of their cases, made worse because their post-assault repercussions are not recognized as service related and their attackers have not been punished. In addition to the poignancy of their stories, it is made clear the military is losing droves of trained, experienced personnel to this continuing problem.

While several of the incidents covered have already been widely publicized, like the investigations of the 1991 Navy and Marine Corps Tailhook gauntlet, what’s depressingly significant is how little has changed. The Department of Defense considers itself constructive for removing the embarrassingly mealy mouthed head of the Sexual Assault and Prevention and Response Office. On camera, she talks like someone from decades ago about how women shouldn’t walk alone at night on their military bases (including to the latrine) in provocative clothes (meaning basic exercise outfits) as if the victims are at fault. She was replaced by another female major general, who sounds only somewhat more helpful in agreeing that warning posters and brochures are not enough.

Service members provide explicit detail how they could not complain within the chain of command without retaliation or inaction, especially if those above them were the perpetrators. The DOD’s response to prescreenings of the documentary was to authorize investigations at the level of colonel or captain, which is not enough compared to an independent follow-up. Though not quite as dramatic as their TV counterparts, former JAG (Judge Advocate General) and NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) officers provide objective corroboration on the legal failures of the system, particularly about serial offenders, who are claimed to commit the majority of the offenses. (The film sounds a warning about predators released on the unsuspecting civilian population for wider ramifications.)

In the weakest, and concluding, section, which goes on much too long, these victims lobby Congress one-on-one. In addition, there are clips of what seem like grandstanding outrage in Congressional speeches and at committee hearings. (It would be news if a politician didn’t express sympathetic concern to a constituent on camera and propose bills that have no chance of passage.) Mentioned only in passing is that any allegation is dismissed if the victim of a sexual assault admits to against-the-rules alcohol consumption. The PBS docuseries Carrier (2008), made with full DOD cooperation, showed tearful assault complainants getting punished instead for that admission, while crackdowns on racism were strict and swift. It is the military’s acclaimed success in dealing with racism that gives the filmmakers hope that sexual abuse can be addressed as well, though that took quite awhile to be effective, time the rising number of victims coming forward don’t have.

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