Friday, July 5, 2013


My latest review, also published in the Portland Observer:

If you've been reading this column or my blog for long, you know there's a high likelihood that I am going to recommend that you watch a film depicting some type of oppression or suffering. In fact, although I occasionally do recommend lighter fare, my list of the best films of 2012 is all pretty heavy stuff. What's the point of watching such stories? I'll do my best to explain that as I recommend the 9th film on my 2012 list, "The Invisible War," an Oscar-nominated documentary about the systemic problem of sexual assaults in the U.S. military.

It's a mark of oppression that conduct that has affected so many people can have remained so invisible As the film exposes, institutional corruption has made sexual assault within the U.S. military a rampant problem for decades, even while military leaders have claimed "zero tolerance."

Although the documentary focuses most of its attention on about eight survivors, it includes interviews with scores of veterans whose stories share any number of characteristics: Most of the assaults were accomplished by a superior officer and involved the use of force; none of the survivors had recourse to an impartial justice system; none received adequate emotional or physical care; nearly all the survivors lost military careers in which they were deeply invested; hardly any of the perpetrators were punished, and, indeed, many have advanced in their careers.

The examples are outrageous and horrifying, and watching the survivors and their loved ones recount their stories can by hard-going. But the first reason for doing so is that these survivors have endured these experiences in such isolation. Many, perhaps most, suffered repercussions for speaking out; they were instructed to suck it up or were out-and-out threatened; their files were "lost" or their cases closed for lack of evidence (their testimony and their injuries viewed as insufficient). Many have attempted suicide and most suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The film is constructed so as to give the victims an audience, and these survivors, whose names are not likely ever to be listed on a monument applauding them for what they endured, certainly deserve one.

The second reason for watching the film is that it is such a well-crafted and instructive piece of activism. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that director Kirby Dick had good reason to expect intense resistance to the story he seeks to tell, because the problem of sexual assaults in the military has persisted, un-redressed, for decades.

Dick uses not only statistics, but edits interviews with military officials (many of who minimize or completely mischaracterize the facts), and with scores of survivors, to show their common elements. The film also establishes up front that all its statistics -- clearly and helpfully presented -- come from U.S. military records, though I learned at the screening I first attended that the filmmakers had to hire a statistician to sort through those statistics because they are reported in such a deliberately opaque manner.

What we learn, among other things, is that an astounding 20 percent of females in the military have reported being assaulted, and that an estimated 80 percent of victims don't report the crimes against them. While many of the victims ended up being involuntarily discharged (often after having their trauma diagnosed as a personality disorder or having been charged with conduct unbecoming an officer or adultery, though it is usually the assailants who are married), their assailants suffer no more than a slap on the wrist; fewer than 10 percent are ever criminally charged, and almost never with a felony.

The third reason to see the film is that it is such an instructive example of persistent institutional oppression. One of the most obvious problems is that these incidents are handled through the military justice system (so-called), which creates serious conflicts of interest for those charged with responding to complaints.

Indeed, until very recently (and then ,in response to this film), in an estimated 25 percent of cases, the assailant was the person to whom the victim was supposed to report and, in another 30 percent of cases, the victim was supposed to report to a friend of the assailant, whose personal career incentives counseled against pursuing the matter.

A woman who worked as an investigator before she was assaulted herself notes that most of the sexual assault cases were assigned to men for investigation because women were viewed as too soft to accurately assess them.
All of these elements make for a system that facilitates and supports sexual predators. The film deconstructs how this all works; military ranks include a higher percentage of sex offenders than in the general population and, in fact, until recently sex offenders could easily obtain enlistment waivers. The insular nature of life inside the Armed Forces enforces a culture of secrecy in which speaking out or putting pressure on the system exacts a personal toll. Indeed, some of the most moving footage is of male family members of two of the female victims, who decided to speak on camera at the risk of their own military careers.

The film notes that shortly after its release in April 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued a directive making a small but significant change to the handling of sexual assault cases that effectively ended the practice of commanders adjudicating those cases within their own units.

But there is a hopeful postscript that you won't see when you screen the film. The New York Times reported in January that the film has been credited with both persuading more women to come forward to report abuse and with forcing the military to deal more openly with the problem, and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 included a number of improvements to the military's handling of sexual assault cases, such as barring recruits with felony sex offense convictions from receiving enlistment waivers, improved record keeping in cases of military sexual assault, and the establishment of comprehensive sexual victims units with specifically trained personnel to investigate and prosecute instances of sexual assault.

The history depicted in the film does not suggest that the systemic corruption that has led to a culture of sexual assault in the military is likely to end quickly. But all in all, this film is a brilliant expose' of institutional oppression and a calculated move to dismantle it.

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