This is a guest post by Whitney. Whitney lives in New York in a pink room. She is involved with a short independent film about the trauma and misconceptions of date rape. Whitney is preparing for law school.
Last week I had the privilege of seeing The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering). The Invisible War explores the epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military, and by using personal stories and the government’s own figures and statistics from Department of Defense reports over the years, the film paints a very gruesome picture of what is means to serve in the military if you’re a woman. It’s powerful, and appalling, and outrageous. I thought I knew what I was getting into when I went to see a documentary about rape in the military, but I was not prepared for the full story The Invisible War presents.
The documentary outlines some of the hard facts: 20% of service women have been sexually assaulted while serving. Women who have suffered what they call ‘Military Sexual Trauma’ have a higher rate of PTSD than men who’ve served in combat. 1% of service men have been sexually assaulted (and because of the greater number of men in the military, more men are raped/sexually assaulted than women). There’s a 4% conviction rate of the reported assaults. The Department of Defense says that 3,158 incidents of sexual assault were reported in 2010, yet they estimate that 86% of incidents are not reported; that math gets us to 22,548 sexual assaults in one year. Invisible War says that it’s possible half a million women have been sexually assaulted in uniform since 1991.
The film does an excellent job of focusing on the personal stories of several survivors (including a few men), but also clearly shows that sexual assault is an epidemic, by inserting Department of Defense’s own statistical findings and interviews with experts, criminal investigators and psychologists. It builds up to the prestigious Marine Barracks in Washington DC, which apparently is the where the best of the best of the Marine Corps are stationed. Two lieutenants who were stationed there describe a culture of rampant sexual harassment, hazing, abuse of power and rape. We learn that in units where sexual harassment is tolerated, incidents of rape triple.
What is more horrifying than the sexual assaults themselves is the reaction of the military to these crimes. The procedure for reporting a rape or sexual assault in the military is to report to your commanding officer. Each survivor detailed how their commander did not treat the reports seriously, sided with the perpetrator, or retaliated against them for reporting. With policies like “zero tolerance” coming from senior military officials there’s an incentive at every level to not report that rape is a problem in your unit. It makes sense that this then translates to pressure on the victim to drop the report. One soldier was told by their commanding officer while reporting an assault to “stop crying over spilt milk.” Victims who report are told over and over the consequences of lying, they’re simply ignored, rape kits and evidence go ‘missing,’ or they’re told they were asking for it. It looks bad for a unit to have convicted felons, which means they reduce the cases to these lesser offenses (if any charges are brought at all), and as a result these perpetrators are not registered on any sex offender registry.
Additionally aggravating is the military’s pathetic attempts to deal with this through their Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO). Their brilliant idea to prevent soldiers from raping other soldiers: the tried and true victim blaming buddy system. Of course, if you’re raped by a fellow soldier, it’s your fault for not having a ‘buddy’ with you at all times. You should know better! Rapists are out there, and so we can never walk alone around a military base, because it’s just not safe! When the colorful poster campaign does turn its attention to the man’s behavior, it simply advises him to “ask her when she’s sober.” One of the film’s golden moments is an interview with Dr. Kaye Whitley, in charge of SAPRO at the time. When asked about the profile of rapists in the military, and whether they are serial offenders, she answers that the military doesn’t collect data on that (they should, shouldn’t they? Well they do) and she mutters that the profile of a perpetrator is not in her area of expertise, which focuses on prevention. So when she’s asked about other prevention efforts besides the ‘buddy system,’ she blinks, stumbles and finally mumbles that she’s “not familiar” with any others.
The film exposes and blames the absolute power a commander has in the investigation and prosecution of an alleged assault. Among the reasons so many do not report an assault, 33% said the commander they were to report to was a friend of the rapist. 25% said the commander to report to was the rapist. Major General Mary Kay Hertog, who took over as head of SAPRO, fervently defends the military judicial system’s chain of command process and insists that “there is no conflict of interest.” What does Major General Hertog suggests to women who feel they were not given a fair and just investigation? Contact your congressman. And she somehow says that with a straight face.
There has been a lawsuit along these lines, which the film discusses. Twenty some plaintiffs sued former Secretaries of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, seeking damages for being raped, assaulted and harassed at the fault of the Department of Defense. The complaint stated that Rumsfeld and Gates failed to 1) prevent the rapes and assaults, 2) investigate reports properly, 3) prosecute the crimes, 4) provide an adequate judicial system and 5) abide by deadlines for congressionally-ordered institutional reforms to address rapes and assaults.
The suit was dismissed by a district judge in December, noting the “troubling nature of the sexual assault allegations” but decided that ultimately the relief sought was inappropriate because of the “special factor” of “unique disciplinary structures of the military establishment.” The decision stated that “…matters of military discipline should be left to the ‘political branches responsible’ — as the judicial branch is not” and that the military should be exempt from “judicial intrusion” because of the “degree of disruption.” An appeal has been filed.
A second lawsuit emerged since the film’s completion, with former Marine officer Ariana Klay, who is heavily featured in the film, leading 11 other plaintiffs. This suit, Klay v Panetta, Rumsfeld, Gates and several other current/former heads of the Marine Corp/Navy, alleges that “each plaintiff suffered directly from the Defendants’ unlawful conduct” which “created and maintained a hostile environment for service members reporting rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment.” There is currently a motion to dismiss pending.
One idea that I would have liked the film to explore further is the brief mention that the military is perhaps attracting men who rape, rather than or in addition to breeding an environment tolerable of rape. There’s a study of Navy recruits where 15% admitted to having raped someone prior to enlisting. That’s twice the percentage of the equivalent civilian population. (In Klay v Panetta, the complaint cites 13% of men enlisting admitted to raping someone and 71% of them admitted to committing serial rape). It isn’t surprising that sexual assault is endemic in the military when they are recruiting a disproportionate number of people who have already committed rape and creating a culture where it is permissible.
The film’s purpose is to educate the audience on an epidemic of rape and sexual assault and the military’s insufferable inaction. Through public awareness and pressure, the film and its campaign (notinvisible.org) are hoping to reach policy makers and top military officials who can actually affect real changes in the military judicial system. What needs to happen: give some consideration to the type (and history) of men being recruited; take away the investigative powers from the immediate commander; send reports to an independent, impartial system for adjudication; prosecute perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law, and treat these crimes with the same seriousness afforded to civilian society.
Notinvisible.org allows those wishing to get involved to sign their petition, host a screening, and share the message via facebook and twitter. They also have dogtags, and photos of people wearing the dogtags as ‘standing with survivors.’
The Invisible War, the winner of the Sundance Audience Award, is now showing in New York, Washington DC, LA and San Francisco, and will be opening in several other cities in the next month. Please find a theater.