The Invisible War: Militarism and Gender (part 4)

By Lynn Koh
Apr 14, 2013

Another installment of our ongoing series on militarism and gender.  This is a review of the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War.  Still in the works:  writing on Three Guineas, What Kind of Liberation, Sexual Decoys.  Let me know what else I should be covering.

The title of The Invisible War, a documentary about rape in the U.S. military, suggests that the institutions and machinery of state violence have been somehow turned against the very soldiers pledged to serve those institutions. Those soldiers now face a day-to-day struggle to hold their lives together as survivors of sexual assault.  The film draws on interviews with a wide range of survivors and other commentators, mainly retired military personnel, but follows the stories of a few women and one man to provide the viewer with some sense of epidemic of sexual assault, its impact on soldiers, its structural causes, and the military’s response.

The central story is that of Kori Cioca, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, who was raped by her commanding officer.   Prior to the rape, Cioca had reported several incidents of inappropriate and harassing behavior -- including finding the officer sleeping in her bed -- but was told that she shouldn’t file a complaint simply because she didn’t like the officer.  Eventually, she was raped by the officer in his room.  When she resisted, he hit her in the jaw so hard it got dislocated and the bones ended up sitting on raw nerve.  The doctor who examined her asked if she had been in a car accident.  Her rapist continued in his position with the Coast Guard.

One of the threads of the film tracks Cioca’s attempt to receive the necessary surgery from the VA to repair her jaw.  She sits on the phone for an eternity to check the status of her claim -- 14 months after the incident, it is still pending.  She drives to a hospital where it turns out the wrong x-rays have been ordered; doctors had ordered back x-rays instead of jaw x-rays.  In the end she is denied the surgery, apparently because her length of service in the military did not qualify her for the benefits.

The film explores with great sensitivity the many ways Cioca’s life has been changed by the rape and its aftermath:  from only being able to eat jello and other soft foods due to her injured jaw, to seeing a counter full of painkillers and antidepressants, to the strains on her marriage.   In one scene, Cioca reads a suicide note she had written to her mother in 2007, and then describes how she took a bottle full of pills.  But instead of dying, she woke up and after undergoing medical examination, discovered she was pregnant. 

What overall impression emerges from Cioca’s story, set alongside those of the other survivors profiled?  First, the immense wreckage wrought:  Trina McDonald, who had dreamed of being in the military since her childhood, was raped by members of the military police and ends up homeless in Seattle doing and selling drugs;  Hannah Sewell, raped by another new recruit just after arriving on base, who contemplates hanging herself from a flagpole; Ariana Klay, who shot through the ranks of the Marines to the vaunted Marine Barracks, rescued from a suicide attempt by her husband; Michael, raped while serving in Vietnam, who was on the verge of suffocating himself in the garage with carbon monoxide when a dog started scratching at the garage door.  Second, these are also portraits of resilience:  many of the survivors join a lawsuit charging the military with denying them due process;  we also see the individuals whose support has made a life-and-death difference to the survivors:  husbands, wives, parents. 

Almost universally, the interviewees describe being just as upset by the military’s handling of their assault as by the rape itself.  The official spokespeople for the military are portrayed, properly, as absurd or hypocritical.  “Our efforts are really focused on prevention,” says one of them.  “What are you doing around prevention?”  asks the interviewer.  “Making sure women always have a buddy.”  “Anything else?”  “Um…not sure.” 

The film’s explication of the web of practices, structures, and other factors that lie at the root of the huge number of rapes is effective and persuasive.  Once a rape occurs, somewhere between a quarter and a third of victims do not report because they would have to report either to the rapist of friend of the rapist.  If the rape is reported, the report is either ‘restricted’ (confidential), in which case the survivor receives counseling and no disciplinary action is taken; or ‘unrestricted’, in which case the charge is completely public.  Women who allege sexual assault are routinely bullied out of filing an official report; they are told that a ’false report’ will lead to demotion and other sanctions.  Cioca was told to sign a statement saying the sex was consensual, which she refused to do.  Investigations are not handled rigorously -- Hannah Sewell was told all the evidence in her case was lost, which she later found out was untrue --  and then in the event of a conviction, a commander has convening authority, meaning he or she can overturn a conviction. Incidentally, this is exactly what happened recently, when Air Force Lt. General Franklin overturned a sexual assault conviction and installed the convicted Lt. Col. as chief of flight safety.  Taken together, these create a situation where very few perpetrators are subject to serious punishment   The number of U.S. servicewomen who have been raped in the military is estimated at 500,000.  The indictment is searing.

In a film that relentlessly unravels the military’s complicity in sexual violence, the connection between militarism and gender is raised explicitly only once -- in discussing the experience of male victims of rape.  In fact, the broader conceptual framework is that some individuals have a propensity to rape – we are shown a statistic that U.S. Navy recruits are twice as likely as the average person to have committed or attempted rape prior to enlistment -- which is exacerbated by the impunity afforded by the military’s institutions; the military should be improved by stopping the loss of patriotic, skilled, valuable servicewomen to the epidemic of rape.  The film almost insistently isolates the themes explored in the film from any larger optic that would connect the rape of U.S. soldiers to other victims of U.S. violence, other ways in which the military is insulated from accountability, or other experiences of militarism. 

This is fine as far as the film-maker’s intentions go.  They have created an effective piece of agitprop that is likely to contribute to improving the lives of military servicewomen and servicemen.   But it certainly leaves any viewer who has looked at militarism and patriarchy as mutually reinforcing systems with a number of questions.  Might there be a connection between the prevalence of rape and elevated levels of domestic violence, mental illness, and trauma suffered by combat veterans?  Between the military’s handling of sexual assault reports and its insulation from accountability for war crimes?  One need not buy into an essentialist argument  -- that militarism necessarily produces rape, or that the military turns men into rapists -- in order to find these questions important. 

I encourage everybody to see The Invisible War and reflect on what we can do to support survivors and end military sexual trauma.

Some resources:

Service Women's Action Network

Swords-to-Plowshares Women Veteran's Project

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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