Documenting Sexual Assault in the Invisible War
The statistics about sexual assault in the military are shocking. The Department of Defense reported 3,158 cases of assault in 2011. Less than half of these were referred for possible disciplinary action, and only 191 military members received convictions. The Department estimates that less than 14% of victims report assaults, suggesting that the actual number of attacks approaches 19,000 per year.
While the numbers come from the Department of Defense, we only learn about them in the documentary The Invisible War, released today by Cinedigm/Docurama Films. Written and directed by Kirby Dick, The Invisible War is an old-school expose, one that shines a light on material that some would prefer remained hidden.
You might wonder why we need The Invisible War at all. Sexual assault in the military is not a new topic. In 1991 the major television networks gave extensive coverage to the Tailhook scandal, during which more than 100 aviation officers were alleged to have assaulted over 80 women. PBS devoted an episode of Frontline to the incident.
In 1996, the Army brought charges against 12 officers for sexual assault of female trainees at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Again this received widespread media coverage, as did a 2003 scandal at the U.S. Air Force Academy. More recently, attorney Susan Blake and sixteen plaintiffs filed a lawsuit over sexual assaults at the Marine Barracks in Washington, DC, and other locations.
And yet The Invisible War catalogues a subsequent series of rapes and sexual assaults in all branches of the armed forces, and gives pretty conclusive evidence that they are largely ignored. In numerous interviews, victims describe how they were pressured and at times threatened not to report assaults, or found themselves charged with adultery while their attackers went free. According to the filmmakers, a third of servicewomen were too afraid to report assaults because their commanding officers were friends of the rapists. A quarter of the time, the commanding officer was the rapist.