The Invisible War

The Invisible War provides an institutional analysis of how and why sexual assault thrives in the US military. Through a detailed accounting of the problem—over time and across multiple branches of the military—the documentary shows the predictive factors of sexual assault and also the dynamics that inhibit prosecution and future prevention. The film is gripping and intense—like its subject matter (absolutely no pun intended)—and it mirrors many of the same strengths that served the directors in their follow-up film The Hunting Ground. Unfortunately, it also replicates many of the same weaknesses: while providing a rather sociological analysis of sexual assault within military bureaucracy, it stops short of identifying core, hierarchical systems that perpetuate it, namely rape culture and patriarchy. Those limitations aside, it’s a stunning film that is very convincing (especially due to its strategic and exclusive use of official government and military statistics throughout).

There are numerous factors that lead to sexual assault within the military’s ranks, not least of which is the heavy drinking culture that it fosters. This drinking culture is partially an expression of the highly masculine nature of the military, but is also reflective of the many needs to cope with the violence, control, and trauma experienced by its members (sexual or not). As with the sexual abuse that festers within the Catholic Church, the US military is also a closed system in which civilian oversight cannot penetrate, which allows sexual predators to safely exist. Also (at least in my analysis of the film’s main arguments), the US military is also a highly macho environment, wherein men prove their masculinity through conquest. This is why male victims of sexual assault—who are justifiably shown in the documentary—are even less likely to report than female victims due to the dual shame of homophobia and emasculation.

The factors that inhibit prosecution are even more troubling, since they illustrate that many more people are aware of the predatory, abusive, and violent actions of their peers, subordinates, and superior officers, but choose to do little to rectify these problems. Survivors of sexual abuse or assault have to file charges against fellow soldiers up the chain of command. As a consequence, one’s commanding officer handles the initial investigation (and, as The Invisible War shows, he may be the very perpetrator the survivor wishes to charge). Officers do not want to inform their superiors of rape allegations originating in their units since it reflects negatively on their command skills and thus their future careers. The rape culture that many military personnel accept prima facie includes numerous apologies for sexually aggressive behaviors, as with the soldiers who made excuses for aviators who groped female soldiers (“what did you expect to happen when walking through a crowded hallway of drunk aviators?”—apparently not respect). There is a weak and ineffectual “prevention” division within the military, known by the acronym SAPARO (Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response Office) that engages in cringe-worthy victim-blaming via advertising and posters, but does not seek to understand predation nor target predators. If anything, SAPARO is like many bureaucracies’ legal office who seeks to avoid lawsuits or a public relations office that seeks to put a positive spin on horrible behaviors. The top military brass feel unaccountable to Congress, as witnessed by one incident the film shows: the head of SAPARO is ordered by her supervisor to not attend a Congressional hearing, despite Congress ordering her to attend and testify.

All in all, The Invisible War makes for a formidable case study on the many negative consequences of bureaucratic institutions (like large universities or the Catholic Church) who seem structurally uninterested, unwilling, or incapable of responding to malevolent behavior occurring within their own ranks.

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