In 2012 a documentary directed by Kirby Dick called the Invisible War sensationalized sexual assault in the military by taking viewers through personal accounts of female soldiers who share the trauma of their rapes. It won an audience award at the 2012 Sundance Music Festival and has received numerous positive reviews from the media.
The documentary claims that a female American officer in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire, and that the military actively seeks to cover these rapes up rather than bring the assailants to justice. In a review of the documentary, PBS states that “a culture of privilege and impunity has resulted in few prosecutions, and the systematic isolation of women – and men – who dare report the crimes.”
This documentary led to voluntary changes within the military justice system and proposals from Congress to change the military justice system by force. If you watch the documentary, you would likely conclude that change is more than necessary, and that indeed the Invisible War is the “most shameful and best-kept secret in the US military.”
But every story has at least two sides.
Rob Fitzgerald is a detachment sergeant and special agent in the Criminal Investigation Division of the army. He has been a member of the military police for nearly 15 years, and investigating sexual assault claims is a large part of his job. He feels like the Invisible War was made with an agenda, and that it doesn’t accurately portray the way the military handles reported sexual assaults. “Most sexual assaults reported aren’t full on rape as we define it,” he said, “and that is because the military has been cracking down on all forms of sexual assault.”
The Invisible War “reveals” that as many as half a million women and men have been raped or assaulted in the military since World War II, and that 80 percent of victims never come forward for fear of retaliation, while 25 percent of female assault victims don’t come forward because the person they report assault to is their attacker. What is the documentary failing to tell you? Fitzgerald says that over the past few years, the military has changed the sexual assault laws to encompass things that were previously considered sexual harassment.
“The new sexual assault laws are now made to be catch-all. Everything from an unwanted touching to actual rape is investigated the same way, and that is driving the number of complaints up dramatically. “If you touch someone’s hand and they didn’t want you to, they can report that as assault, but it’s obviously not going to be prosecuted. And is it really justice to send someone to jail for touching another person? No, it’s just not justifiable, and that’s why the conviction rate is so low.”
Fitzgerald clarified that rape and assault in the military is a large problem that deserves attention. “Historically we dug our own hole. 20 years ago we sucked at handling assault.” But today, he says, there isn’t an “invisible war” on women based on misogynistic ideals. “Male sexual assault is more prevalent and less reported,” he said, “but it’s something that nobody talks about—in the military or civilian life. Men don’t want to admit vulnerability, and all the programs for assault victims are advertised toward women.”
How has the military responded to all the negative press about the way they handle sexual assault? According to Fitzgerald, victims now have more rights afforded to them, including compulsory legal representation, a special victims unit, sexual assault prosecutors who focus solely on assault cases, and victims have the option of immediate transferal to a different location. In an effort to prevent assault from happening, all military personnel undergo sexual assault trainings every few months.
Is it enough? Fitzgerald doesn’t seem hopeful, but it isn’t for lack of effort. “There’s no solve,” he says in frustration, “when it comes to good ideas, we are dumping countless of them at this problem. The military is an extension of society, and as long as there are sexual predators in society there will be sexual predators in the military.”
The salient issue in the Invisible War documentary is the large discrepancy between reported assaults and conviction rates, but it seems that it simply doesn’t tell the entire story. Failing to prevent sexual assault can lead to dangerous situations for innocent people, but then again, so can inaccurate reporting.