Military affairs dominate national discourse and have for more than a decade now. Two foreign wars, looming nuclear threats, unrest throughout the Middle East and questions about the government’s ability to fund rampant defense spending stymie Congress and the White House.
Yet, among the rank and file, there’s an internal civil war pitting soldier against soldier, enlisted men and women against those further up the chain of command. And I dare say that the issue of rape in the military could upend the system more than the efforts to ban discrimination based on race or sexual orientation.
Two-time Academy Award nominee Kirby Dick (Best Documentary Feature for The Invisible War and 2005’s Twist of Faith) wages a timely battle with this War, highlighting several soldiers, mainly female, but altogether these precious few are only a handful next to the thousands of cases (both reported and unreported) that occur every year. The striking feature is that through these select instances, we get the sense of the overwhelming roll call of those incidents that we don’t get to hear about, yet it is not the quantity that matters at all. That these cases exist means that there is a cavernous disconnect between the discipline and trust that the military seeks to create and some darker aspect of human nature.
I found myself referring to the situation that plagues the Catholic Church, another institution struggling to reconcile abuse within an institution that preaches safety, trust and faith nurtured in what amounts to an extension of the family unit. It is damning to draw parallels between how the Church has internally “managed” transfers of priests investigated for abuse without taking steps prevent future harm to other vulnerable members of the community and what military leaders have done with their own suspect officers.
Time and again, as women step forward to make initial reports, they are confronted with base victimization and the tables are turned, rendering them not just victims but also criminals, as charges of public intoxication or adultery are leveled against them.
Of the individual testimonies, that of Ohio native Kori Ciora (US Coast Guard) is frustrating and maddening. Ciora sustained injuries during a brutal sexual assault that have rendered her largely incapable of returning not only to active duty but also professional civilian life. Due to bureaucratic roadblocks, she cannot get disability coverage for treatment and rehabilitation and she suffers from severe PTSD, which puts stress on her marriage and family situation (she and husband Rob, also a member of the military, have a young daughter).
The film contains one whopper after another — lines that speak to much more than a mere cover-up or turning a blind eye to morally compromised behavior. Due process barely exists within the military because chain of command reigns supreme, which, of course, makes it impossible to get a fair investigation or a hearing when the unit commander (untrained in civil due process) is closely linked to the possible perpetrator(s) of the assault under review. So the military’s answer is for the victim to go to their Congressman. Go to their Congressman? Imagine, if you dare, what it would be like in civilian life to have to track down your Congressman and get them to assist you after a rape or a burglary?
To combat the process head on, Ciora joins a class action suit of female soldiers to bring the issue before Congress. At one point during their meetings with female members of Congress, she and another of the complainants stand before a case with uniforms and various honors wondering if there will be a medal, somewhere down the line, for women who survived abuse during their military service.
Toward the end, the film drops one last bombshell, informing us that injuries from assault cannot be adjudicated because rape has been deemed an occupational hazard of active duty in the military. Rape as an occupational hazard?
As a conciliatory gesture, Leon Panetta, outgoing Secretary of Defense, watched The Invisible War in April of 2012, and a few days later, removed the power to adjudicate cases from unit commanders. In reality, this concession barely addresses the systemic failure within America’s glorious military and offers proof that for all of our global self-righteousness, the United States willfully continues to refuse to live up to its democratic ideals.
Available on DVD (NR) Grade: A
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