There is little that can prepare an audience for the stomach-churning realities presented in Kirby Dick’s exposé, The Invisible War (2012). A searing investigation into rape within the various branches of the US military, it’s both brutal and urgent; akin to an endurance test, but one that’s absolutely vital to undertake. Much has rightly been made of the evolution apparent in recent documentaries, with the likes of The Act of Killing (2013) and Leviathan (2013) experimenting with both form and concept. Dick’s is a film that restrains technique in favour of giving its subjects a voice, and it’s one that has at least partly being heard with stirrings of policy shifts as a result.
A montage opens proceedings, a sequence of archive footage illustrating the changing roles of women in the military through the decades; from antiquated charm to what would seem to be integration and equality. Then follows an introduction to several of the individuals that Dick focuses on throughout his tough documentary, including past members of the US Navy, US Air Force, the Marines and Coast Guard amongst others. They all speak of inspiration, of honour, of duty. They effuse of the fulfilment of the academy and buoyant optimism that is punctured unremittingly by the harrowing truths of endemic sexual abuse. “I got there in February, and by April I had been drugged and raped for the first time” – “the first time” being the operative term here.
It’s truly shocking to learn not only the extent to which sexual assault is pervasive in the US military, but also the objectionable systems in place to deal with it. Victims are expected to “put up and shut up”, with rape labelled as an ‘occupational hazard’ for women serving in the forces. The Invisible War asserts, through testimonies from those abused and legal officials, that the judicial processes in place not only fail to grasp the gravity of the situation, but actively persecute victims and protect perpetrators. The sickening fact is that for decades those in power have had sole discretion over charges despite often being an acquaintance of those guilty – if not the offender themselves.
Dick has chosen to concentrating on the only people he can, the (literally) traumatised victims and their families. In doing this, the film also highlights that the predators have just slunk off back into the homogeneous mass, camouflaged by an institution that fails to comprehend, or is unwilling to accept, the heinous crimes committed within its ranks. Although The Invisible War hardly breaks the mould in its execution, it makes for compelling – if appalling – viewing. It’s subject is one that deserves to be shouted about and undoubtedly will, thanks to this blood-boiling documentary.