Crime is a bad thing. That’s a basic premise that everyone can agree with — violent crime, larceny, drug distribution — they’re all things that we want to avoid in society. I’m confident that everyone would also agree that sexual assault is a crime, and just as, if not more destructive, than most. It’s a basic premise. And yet sexual assault prosecutions and administrative actions are constantly called into question, and frequently dissolve into wars over credibility and honesty. It seems like every day a new article pops up on “rape culture”, another school or program in in the news for a sex scandal. Everyone agrees that it’s a problem — and nowhere is that more apparent than in small, secluded communities like college campuses, sports teams, or the military.
Enter “The Invisible War,” a 2012 documentary on the incidents of sexual assault in the military. The film takes a very definite view of the problem — that command-directed prosecutions are a bad thing, and that the military is not taking steps to resolve the high rate of sexual assault in the military. The film, which was viewed by then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, as well as most of Congress and most military commanders, has been fundamental in the change of certain policies and directives.
Now, I have a mild distaste for documentaries in general. Most of them have a theme, or a message to get across, and inherently carry a bias. That, in itself, isn’t a bad thing — what art, after all, doesn’t contain a bias? My problem is that documentaries often carry an illusion of truth — but it’s one side’s truth. And such is the case with the Invisible War.
Much of the film is accurate — the filmmakers chose to get across their message through the eyes of women who have been sexually assaulted, and through the eyes of those who found no justice through military courts or commanders. This, I am sure, is a truth. The film is filled with statistics, showing the number of women who are assaulted, the numbers that don’t report, and the fact that sexual assault is perpetrated upon men, as well. I don’t dispute the truth of that, either (insomuch as statistics are ever “truth.”)
It’s a problem. But many of the problems that the film focuses on are those same problems that exist in the civilian world. At one point, the filmmakers claim that almost half of all sexual assaults are “funneled” away through restricted reporting — a system by which no action, judicial or otherwise, is taken against the assailant. But the film doesn’t explain what restricted reporting is — namely, an option for the victim, and an option which exists in the civilian context, as well. There is no mandate, either in the military, or civilian world, that a victim of a crime has a duty to report. In the military, however, things are changed a bit — namely, that the people who are mandated to report are increased. In the military, if a victim reports a sexual assault to his/her superior, that person must report the assault. If a victim reports to the law office, it will proceed to adjudication. If a victim reports to the police, it will be filed. What restricted reporting does is allow for a victim who does NOT want to go through potential judicial processes to receive services. Restricted reporting allows a victim to receive counseling, medical care, or talk to a chaplain, without having to interview with the police and participate in a law enforcement investigation. It is the same right that civilians have — and the fact that the military allows victims this option is, quite frankly, a good thing.
Similarly, the film pokes fun at the military Sexual Prevention program, which, at least in 2012, focused a significant amount of attention on safety for potential victims. But telling women (and men!) how to protect themselves is hardly a villainous practice. Rape is a crime — you can’t convince a robber to be good by telling him to do so. We teach people to lock their doors so that they aren’t burglarized, not to leave cell phones in cars so that cars aren’t broken into. Nobody complains about these PSAs. Neither should there be complaint about safety awareness.
That being said, there are plenty of valid complaints in the documentary — in particularly, the now-antiquated practice by which a commander could overturn a court-martial. That was a problem, and one which has, thankfully, been resolved. (It’s not as horrible a thing as most civilians assume, this Commander power: consider, after all, however many military-specific crimes there are: fraternization, which occurs when an officer and an enlisted have a relationship; unprofessional relationships; dereliction of duty; disrespect to a superior officer; absent without leave; straggling — all of which, if court-martialed and sentenced to the utmost, could result in a felony conviction — is it so unjust that a Commander can overturn the sentence, and then grant the same punishment?).
What’s stunning about this documentary, is that it effected change. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta viewed it. At one point, it was mandatory for all military commanders to view. The documentary achieved what all, true documentaries, seek to do: to uncover a truth, to expose it, and to effect change. To that effect, bravo to the Invisible War.