Rape as an occupational hazard? It’s hard to picture an American employer making such a claim, and having it upheld in the court of law, since it means denying an employee their basic human rights, and violating the Constitution. One employer claims an exception, and that’s the United States Army. Such is the central message of Kirby Dick’s latest documentary, The Invisible War, which is having its New York premiere as part of the Human Rights Film Festival. The film, which won the Sundance Audience Award, tells the story of about a dozen women who had joined the army out of idealistic notions of serving their country (some following in their fathers and brothers’ footsteps), only to see their careers and dreams shattered when heinous crimes are committed against them by their fellow recruits.
Dick’s film is the stuff of hardcore investigative journalism, and it’s compelling. It follows a trajectory that may initially seem predictable: from early military ads, which themselves seem sexist as they strive to prove that women soldiers can be feminine (those early female soldier mascots look like a cross between a Barbie and Marilyn Monroe), to the glorious tales of training and feeling like one of the guys, to then the foreseeable horrendous end. Some aspects of the story, however, surprise in a grim kind of way. Mostly the shortsightedness of the military leadership, which had deemed it appropriate that women should report the rapes to their military commanders. That there’s a conflict of interest here, since women are often raped by their direct supervisors and since the incidents make a commander look bad, are obvious. Not if you’re the military apparently, where silence and intimidation appear to be de rigueur. In a devious twist of events, some women soldiers have even been charged with adultery after being raped—because their rapists were married.
The statistics are numbing, particularly the fact that none of the rapes investigated by Dick had been prosecuted as seriously or severely as they would have been in the real world, rather than in the cruel military dystopia. One further point is clear, and it forms the film’s additional “So what?”: Rape in the military is often viewed as an isolated problem, particular to its closed-off environment, but it’s a fact that rapists are repeat offenders; left unpunished, they not only prey on new victims in the army, but, transitioned to civilian life, become sexual predators on the outside, in neighborhoods, schools, and in workplaces.
Dick shows a great commitment to the stories of individual women, particularly in the case of Kori, a former U.S. Coast Guard who’s denied medical benefits she desperately needs to heal after a brutal rape leaves her with no discs in her jaw. The camera stays with Kori, oftentimes in close-ups, through many emotionally trying moments, including the reading of her earlier suicide note. Suicide is one of the recurring themes in the film; Dick brings in spouses and psychiatrists to frame this particularly difficult part of his investigation. For the sake of inclusiveness, he also touches briefly on how rape affects gay and straight men in the context of the army’s prevailing homophobia—but this topic merits a separate treatment.
Considering so many ruined lives, which are only a miniscule portion of the actual rape numbers (80% go on unreported), the term “occupational hazard,” used by U.S. District Court Judge Liam O’Grady, sounds cynical at best. It implies that rape is a calculated risk, factored into the military service, and that every recruit must consider before signing up. The women in Dick’s powerful exposé are unanimous in their answer to the judge’s ruling: Until the Department of Defense takes more serious actions, the risk is simply not worth taking.
This year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 14 – 28. For more information, click here.