Film Reveals “The Invisible War” on Women in Our Military

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The documentary “The Invisible War” premiered last week at Sundance, and it is already bringing much needed attention to the problem of rape in the military. Watching clips from the film last fall, I found the experience harrowing. I was struck by the sense of betrayal as well as violation that too many women, and a smaller number of men, encounter when they sign up to protect the national interest. It is just really hard to watch one after another woman tell us how she was assaulted, how authorities failed to protect her both before and after the attack, and how post-traumatic stress disrupts every attempt to rebuild her life. As tough as it is to witness, though, it has to be harder to live, and more witnesses are clearly needed to pressure military leaders to act. Their failure to do so is unforgivable, in a time when a woman is more likely to be raped by an American soldier than killed by enemy fire.

The film itself features no women of color among the major protagonists. I don’t know why that is, and I won’t speculate. I do know that thousands of young women of color join the military every year; it isn’t possible that they could escape a fate that affects so many soldiers. I bet women of color are disproportionately affected by sexual assault, as they were by Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and, as we reported earlier this week, by homelessness when they return stateside as veterans. I hope that advocates working on this issue take into account additional or just different barriers faced by women of color. Putting proposed remedies through a racial equity impact analysis may help with that.

A slightly strange item in the production notes on the film’s website has director Kirby Dick comparing the military’s anti-racism efforts to its lack of action on rape. The armed forces had to integrate after centuries of racial exclusion, and many people argue that it did a better job of that than, say, our public education systems. Today racism is less evident in the military than in the larger society, Kirby points out, and he wants the institutions to achieve similar results on sexual assault. Read more here.