“The Invisible War” + My Meditations on Violence in America

Invisible War

The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, 2012)

Yesterday, December 14, 2012, in Newtown, CT, a deranged gunman took the lives of 20 children and 7 adults (including his own mother) before then killing himself.  This act of atrocity in a place that many still believed was a relatively safe haven – an elementary school – has made most of us profoundly sad, and has renewed calls from some quarters for stricter gun laws. There are those, however, who have reacted to the tragedy by pushing back against such moves, claiming that if only the teachers had been armed, this would not have happened. Some have also suggested that it’s the lack of prayer in public schools that is to blame. I hope that, this time, our nation will engage in a substantive dialogue about why we think that gun ownership – from handguns to assault weapons – is an inalienable right, and why, increasingly, we think the solution to violence is to arm more and more people, even in schools. There is plenty of evidence, from my lifetime, that this will not happen. Witness the travails of activists who have tried, and failed, to change the tenor of the debate, from Representative Carolyn McCarthy of Long Island – the death of whose husband by gun violence motivated her to run for public office – to the parents of slaughtered children.

And so begins my review of director Kirby Dick’s latest documentary, The Invisible War. I had previously only seen one of his films, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which took on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its opaque process of determining movie ratings. The film was interesting, but also clunky. Kirby Dick is a man of strong principles and good investigative instincts, but he lacks some of the filmmaking finesse of other contemporary documentarians, such as Eugene Jarecki, Alex Gibney, Lucy Walker and Steve James. So when I saw that his latest film was on the Best Documentary Oscar Shortlist, and that it was available to watch instantly through Netflix, I put it in my queue and prepared to watch it, but with reservations.

And watch it I did. And it was, indeed, a bit clunky at times. Mr. Dick just cannot handle scene transitions that well. But that said, who cares? He has a knack for getting people to trust him and open up to him, which counts for more than anything else in a documentary like this, so I forgive him his faults. The subjects he interviews will break your hearts. This film is an absolute must-see profile on the horrific truth about rape and its administrative hell of an aftermath in the United States Armed Services. Watch it, please. But be forewarned. It will make you cry, and it will make you very angry.

The Invisible War deals not only with the violence perpetrated against women (and some men) through acts of sexual violation, but with the indifferent and wholly inadequate response of the military bureaucracy to the problem. The victims thereby suffer doubly. First they are raped physically (and in some cases, beaten), and then they are  raped emotionally as their motives and victimization are called into question. They are often blamed, and even when they are not, they are expected to just “get over it” and move on, while the perpetrators of the violence receive minor penalties or no penalties at all, and even move up in the hierarchy. The film highlights the antiquated administrative practice whereby all rapes must be reported to the commanding officer of a unit, who then has sole discretion on how to proceed. There are committees within the military to which victims may appeal, but these committees often defer to the commanding officer of the unit. Some times the perpetrators are these very same commanding officers . . .

Dick and his crew tell their story through a series of profiles of former female (and one male) members of the military who have been raped and are still dealing with the physical and emotional scars. It follows them as they finally band together to take collective legal action and sue the military. These people are incredibly brave, and you will weep as you hear their stories and yell as you see high-ranking brass in the Armed Services claim that there really isn’t a problem with rape in their ranks.

Which brings us back to the response to yesterday’s school shooting. When tragic things happen, the correct response, once the initial period of grieving is over, should be to step back and see how we can create situations where violence doesn’t fester, and where acts of violence have serious consequences for both perpetrators and enablers. Enough with the victim blaming!

The good news for this film is that, since it is short-listed for Best Documentary, hopefully more people will see it and then push for action on this issue. Here is a great website set up to help you “take action” to combat rape in the military.


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