A film review by Craig J. Koban November 7, 2012

RANK:  #25


2012, no MPAA rating, 97 mins.

A documentary directed by Kirby Dick 

"When that bond of trust is broken, the wound penetrates to the innermost part of the soul."

- Army Brig. Gen. (and psychiatrist) Loree Sutton



Kirby Dick’s THE INVISIBLE WAR delves into another type of combat battlefield, the mental one fought by countless women that serve or have served in the U.S. military and have, at some point in one for or another, been sexually assaulted.  More than anything, it’s a shockingly revealing documentary, exposing and indicting the military’s chronic inability to properly prosecute the depraved souls that have hurt these women in so many incalculable ways.  It creates a sordid and bleak picture about a systemic social disease that perhaps does not get the public attention it certainly deserves, and for that THE INVISIBLE WAR is harrowing, moving, and oftentimes very difficult to watch without getting teary-eyed. 

Dick’s documentary is filled with statistics that may elicit many angry shakes of the head.  20 per cent of women actively serving in the military have been assaulted, that’s some 5 million souls and of them nearly 80 per cent never report the incident.  Perhaps more scandalous, 40 per cent of female homeless vets have been raped and women who have been raped have a higher degree of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome than men.  Women in combat zones are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than being killed by an enemy combatant.  Most egregious is the fact that the Department of Defense has processed reports of nearly 20,000 victims, but only a little over 200 have actually been convicted.  Worst of all, so many military women that do try to press charges are rarely taken seriously at all; many are actually, in turn, treated like criminals, some being charged with adultery and/or lewd behavior and most being inevitably forced out of a job out of disgrace that they've aspired to for a lifetime . 

Just what the hell is going on here?  Well, the film widely asserts that the real issue is obviously within the military itself.  Incredulously, when a woman in the military is raped or assaulted no formal independent tribunal or investigative team looks into the charges.  Rather, military justice involves hearing the charges by one’s very own commanding officer (who, more times than not, is close with the perpetrator or is even the perpetrator).  It’s astounding that in a fairly liberally minded modern world that the method of handling military justice in regards to sexual assault would be so fundamentally tainted and skewed towards not helping the sufferer; one interview subject in the film states that the reason she was not allowed to investigate one raped allegation was because she was "not impartial" and would easily side with the victim out of sympathy and compassion.  And a male investigator who is a BFF of the accused would be neutral minded? 



Like their male counterparts, the women presented in the film grew up in military-centric homes and aspired to be all that they could be like their family members from multiple past generations.  Kirby opens the film quaintly, showing clips from various military recruitment films as far back as the 50’s and onwards towards the present, showcasing the pride and respect that women could receive if they ventured into a proud career in the armed forces.  The film then abruptly sobers up from the nostalgia of those famous ads and then focuses squarely on interviews with military personal, lawyers, authors, advocates, and, yes, female veterans who have all seen their lives collectively ruined by a neutered military justice system that has never provided for them any semblance of legal closure to their suffering.  These women are indeed as brave as any person going on a battlefield; they have their own unique and deep-rooted emotional and physical wounds. 

There are numerous individuals and their hellish stories to reflect on in the film, but one clearly stands out (and is given the lion’s share of screen time).  Seaman Kori Cioca seemingly has it all: A loving husband, a nice home, and a beautiful young daughter, but she harbors undeniable pains of past trauma in the military.  She was so brutally raped that her jaw was damaged to the point of being unable to subsist on anything but a soft diet for years afterwards.   She has carried the burden of psychological damage as well: her trust in men in general is fleeting, her sexual appetites and relationship with her husband have been strained, and she takes enough prescription meds to easily kill a person if improperly used.  Her medical claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs have been on hold for years; there are pitiful moments in the film where she is stranded on hold for what seems like hours upon hours waiting to speak to someone regarding her claim status, as numbing “please hold” recordings drain her sorrows even further. 

THE INVISIBLE WAR asks hard questions, like what causes women to be methodically abused and often and why are they so easily ignored to the point of being “hazards of the workplace’?  Perhaps – as Kirby alludes to in the film – it’s the ubiquitous military attitude of obeying your superiors no matter what the cost or the underlining male dominance of service men that’s a problem.  The social culture of complaining or accusing is also considered a character flaw and overt weakness (in the military, neither are commendable traits).  Maybe the fact that women have twice the chance of being raped in the military than they do in civilian life and then never report it is directly because their C.O. is sometimes the rapist.  The military’s whitewashing of the this culture of turning a blind eye and sweeping allegations under the carpet is sometimes pathetically dealt with by showing new recruits appallingly sexist “training videos”; one shows a tagline imploring men to "not risk it: wait til she sobers up!”  Unbelievable. 

THE INVISIBLE WAR goes on to explore the infamous 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal, the 1996 Army Aberdeen scandal, and the 2003 Air Force Academy scandal, but in dealing with all of them the military has done little other than to offer vague promises to look hard at the issue and educate service men.  Posters and videos, many in the film argue, will not temper sexual deviants and rapists.  Even when eight women from the revered Marine Barracks in Washington came forward and filed suit against military leaders for fostering a culture and environment that allowed raped and shunned the victims, very little was accomplished.  How pathetic and sad, indeed.

Much like BULLY – another documentary addressing social ills that urged immediate advocacy and change – THE INVISIBLE WAR is a must-see chronicle of how those in power abuse it and how so many military women (and the men in their lives) have suffered as a result of the inaction of their higher-ups.  These women have lost so much: their dignity, self-respect, the prideful honor of serving in the military and doing their families and country proud, and medical aid that they require to eek out a post-rape existence.  Some may argue that one film can’t change the world, but THE INVISIBLE WAR has somewhat done just that.  After screening it, Secretary of Defense Panetta issued a directive that all sexual assault cases are to be no longer handled by unit commanders, ending a long-standing military mandate that has been proven to allow such chronic abuse to go on unchecked.  Will this completely stop the military’s past and horrific legacy of ignoring and admonishing the victims themselves?  No, but Panetta’s efforts are at least the early beginnings of positive change

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