The best they can be? How the Army chain of command fails women
By— June 29, 2012
A dark screen accompanies the sounds of rhythmic drums and sinister music. The darkness fades into a chronological montage of U.S. Army propaganda, leading a viewer through an overview of military aesthetic dating from the newsreel era to the videogame epoch. From the opening frame, a new documentary called “The Invisible War” establishes the realm of an alternate military reality, far from civilian life. A woman explains in voiceover: “There’s a right way, a wrong way, and the Army way.”
These words come back to haunt past and present upper brass later during a montage of numerous women—a group producer Amy Ziering dubs “our Greek chorus”—who describe unique yet horrifyingly similar tales: All were sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers while serving in the United States Army.
At a recent event for the film, which is in theaters now in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, and opens in additional cities today, director Kirby Dick, a veteran documentary filmmaker, said he knew the story would make a powerful film. He’s right. It successfully combines the cinematic power of victims narrating their stories to the camera with the classic journalistic reveal of a cover-up.
Both elements are utilized to maximum effectiveness in the documentary, which includes some shocking statistics. According to government figures shown in the movie, over 20 percent of female veterans were sexually assaulted while serving in the Army, a total of approximately 500,000 women over the last 20 years. In 2010, of 3,223 alleged sexual assault perpetrators, only 175 did any jail time, according to a breakdown of government numbers.
The film concentrates on the stories of four women, all selected, Ziering said in a phone interview, because they satisfied two essential requirements: The cases had to be current and they had to be unimpeachable. This strategy was essential, Ziering said, to deflect whatever criticism they believed might be launched by the U.S. Department of Defense, which they feared might dismiss the film as outdated or exaggerated.
One of the most provocative statistics used in the film states that, according to one survey, 15 percent of naval recruits committed sexual assault before signing up—that’s double the rate of the civilian population. The movie does not delve into this topic, leaving dangling the explosive question of whether this means the Army not only allows sexual assault to occur but also inherently attracts people inclined to commit it.
Ziering said she and Dick did make a conscious decision to focus on rapes that occurred on bases on U.S. soil—in one case literally a flagpole away from the White House—so that the crimes could not be explained away by the chaos and stress of war zones.
Yet easy explanations don't even work for why rape is prevalent in war. Women Under Siege has broken down how sexualized violence has been used as a weapon of war in conflict zones from the Holocaust to Libya, and many reasons for rape in these situations have little to do with the chaos of conflict. In this Guardian piece, Gloria Steinem, Women Under Siege's founder, and Lauren Wolfe, the project’s director, suggested that there is a set of conditions that coalesce from the streets of New York to the battlegrounds of Congo that cause men to act in their own self-interest as human beings and sexually violate women.
The movie’s thesis and advocacy rallying point is that, after the initial physical assaults, Army officials violated the rights of these women (one secondary subject in the film is male) by refusing to fully investigate or prosecute the crimes. The central protagonist, Kori Cioca, whose struggle with the physical and psychological damage left by her attack is exacerbated by the military’s refusal to assist her, lives this point.
Concentration focuses on the particular quirks of military justice, where the sole person with the power to decide if a sexual assault will be investigated is the victim’s unit commander, who in many cases has a close personal relationship with the alleged offender. As in Burma or Egypt, the hierarchy of military command often leaves questionable how well impartial justice can be served. Harvard University Assistant Professor Dara Kay Cohen explained in a recent Council on Foreign Relations interview that rape in any military “often emerges from troops on the ground and is then tolerated by the chain of command—not because commanders have recognized strategic benefits but because the costs of effectively suppressing it appears too high.”
In 25 percent of unreported sexual assaults in the military, the victim did not denounce the crime because the assailant was the same person to whom the victim would have to report the offense, the film says. As one of the subjects puts it: “The people perpetrating it were the police.”
The inherent nature of the chain of command and military justice has resulted in alarming impunity for sexual assault and rape in the Army, the film argues. To support this claim, women describe investigations that are marked by incompetence, foot-dragging, and impropriety. In many cases, the victims themselves face the greatest repercussion for the acts, with two women saying they were charged with adultery after being assaulted (when it was the attacker who was married and not them) and had their careers ruined.
Psychologically, the effects of these attacks have been devastating. As one Army psychologist puts it, “In the military, when functioning at its best, we are a family… .When that band of trust is violated, the wound penetrates to the very innermost part of your psyche.” Many scenes show former women soldiers extolling the virtues of the institution. They were proud to serve, which only highlights the depths of their disillusionment.
“This is not an anti-military film,” Ziering said, but one that hopes to urge the organization to apply its famous slogan “Be the best you can be” to its own inner workings.
Dick gives screen time to various top officials to let them answer to the charges, although those interviewed only dig themselves in deeper, with ludicrous defenses such as suggesting that victims go to their congressperson for proper recourse. The inclusion of military anti-sexual assault campaign material, which includes helpful slogans like “Don’t risk it… wait till she’s sober” and advocates the buddy system, are particularly damning.
But someone in the upper ranks of the DOD obviously realized the public relations nightmare it had on its hands. In April, three months after the movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the film (to this day the filmmakers aren’t completely sure how it got to him), and two days later, elevated the decision to prosecute from the unit commander to the colonel level. He also set up a special victims unit for the military, something that has been commonplace in the civilian world for decades but that is new to the armed forces.
While this is an important step, as long as the decision to investigate remains within the chain of command, any systems of accountability will still be deeply flawed. Dick and Ziering said they are hoping to use the movie as a tool to advocate for the establishment of an independent arbiter for these kinds of crimes.
How much success they can expect is unclear, as is the future of a lawsuit brought by several victims against the military. At stake is not just the image of the institution, but also its ability to continue to recruit the best and brightest. As one woman in the film puts it, in an Army that is already spread far too thin, “these are great soldiers and we can’t afford to lose them.”
Sara Rafsky is the Americas research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Before that, she was a freelance journalist in South America and South East Asia and researched photojournalism and the Colombian armed conflict on a Fulbright grant. Rafsky also lived in Buenos Aires, where she worked with the Global Human Rights and Governance division of the Ford Foundation and interned with Human Rights Watch and the Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information (CELE).