The Invisible War, an award-winning documentary by filmmakers Kirby Dick and Anita Zering, explores, through painfully detailed interviews with victims, the appallingly common problem of sexual assault in the United States military.   F

The US government estimates that over 20% (1 in 5) of female veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving in the military.   The Defense Department reports that 22,800 violent sex crimes were committed in the military last year alone, and the film makes the point that the numbers are actually much higher; as many as 80% of rapes go unreported.

Women are not the only victims.  Because men outnumber women six to one in the military, the majority of sexual abuse victims in the armed forces are men — perhaps 20,000 a year – and because of entrenched homophobia, the shame can be even worse for men.  The film makes sure to point out that “rapists are not gay,” that rape is a crime driven by the desire to assert power and dominance.

As the interviews with these women show over and over, women in the military are coerced into silence: they are threatened with retaliatory violence; their complaints are not taken seriously; charges are dismissed; the women themselves are interrogated for false statements, and evidence is “lost.”  Because the “chain of command” must be followed when reporting these crimes, it often happens that the commanding officer, with whom the decision to prosecute resides, is, himself, the rapist.   One woman who accused a co-marine of rape was charged with adultery although she was unmarried (apparently in the military adultery is still considered a crime) and conduct unbecoming an officer, while her assailant went unpunished.

The stories are heart-rending in their specificity and, at the same time, mind-numbingly similar.  Entering the military as young women – idealistic, eager to serve their country –  the women  are first subject to harassment and abuse – accused of “drawing unwanted attention” to themselves by wearing makeup or the regulation skirted uniform, fondled by officers, ordered to go out drinking with “the guys” as a form of “bonding.”  Often drunk or drugged, they are beaten, abused, held at knife and gun point, and raped; when reporting to their commanding officers are told to “suck it up” and often suffer professional retaliation, investigation, loss of rank, and denial of retirement and veteran’s benefits.

A marine’s husband, himself a marine, talks in the film about the agony of watching his wife deal with her rape, and breaks down in anguish as he speaks of “keeping her from killing herself with one hand and calling 9-1-1 with the other.”

Several of the women interviewed in the film come from families with a tradition of military service; these families suffer also, not only for the harm done to their loved ones, but for the destruction of their belief in the organization to which they have dedicated their lives.   The point is made that rape within the armed forces is often more traumatic than for a civilian victim, because of the strong bonds that are forged between the members of a military unit.  A military rape victim is doubly violated; by the rape itself and by the broken bond of trust when the rapist is one of “the band of brothers.”

“The Invisible War” is unflinching in its depiction of the damage done to military assault victims, Like rape, veteran suicide has become endemic in today’s military: more veterans died from suicide than from combat last year.  I can’t help but wonder how these things are related.  I wish the film had dug a little deeper and asked the hard questions: Is the military a broken institution?

Is it, perhaps, true that rape, as one of the victims was told, “is an occupational hazard of military service?” Could it be possible, that when an institution is created whose deepest avowed purpose is to train young men to kill other human beings, to suspend their humanity in order to combat an enemy, that this – violence, brutality, rape, suicide –  is the result?