Waging ‘Invisible War’ Onscreen and Off Against Rape in the U.S. Military

Documentary exposes decades of sexual abuse and pushes for change.

Soldier Elle Haber at the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington D.C.

Lieutenant Elle Haber stands in front of the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington, D.C., in a scene from The Invisible War. (Photo: Courtesy of Cinedigm)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

The title of the new documentary The Invisible War alludes to the ongoing scourge of sexual abuse in the U.S. armed services, and to how rape and assault have been handled by the military legal system.

The Invisible War is also a fair description of what the film’s makers have been waging behind the scenes since the movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Victims are often in the position of reporting crimes to authorities who are friends of the perpetrator, if not the actual perpetrator.

The team behind The Invisible War, which includes Maria Cuomo Cole and Jennifer Siebel Newsom as executive producers, has worked on creating change that will last long after the cameras stopped rolling.

Encouraged by a response at Sundance that producer Amy Ziering describes as “not only outrage, but a desire to act,” the filmmakers have held a series of “grasstopsThe Invisible War screenings. These high-level presentations have ranged from a conversation-starter on Capitol Hill with 16 Senators and eight additional members of congress in attendance to a private screening on board Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s plane.

The result? Panetta scheduled a press conference two days after seeing the film in April to announce a change in military policy in investigations of sexual assault cases. Going forward, complaints will be handled by more senior officers than they are currently.

To guess at which portion of this devastating new documentary triggered Panetta’s small but crucial adjustment, follow his lead and see the film. Directed by Kirby Dick, whose 2009 film Outrage provided an indictment of closeted politicians who push anti-gay legislation, The Invisible War came out this past weekend in theaters.

Offering up chilling testimony from numerous women and men who were raped while on active duty, the film follows through on the struggle to find justice in the military court system.

Military justice is distinctly different from civilian courts. Victims are often in the position of reporting crimes to authorities who are friends of the perpetrator, if not the actual perpetrator.  

“There’s Tailhook, there’s [various] scandals, but [sexual abuse in the military] has never been recognized as an ongoing problem that’s institutional and systemic,” Ziering tells TakePart. “These flare-ups are not aberrant, but rather symptoms of an underlying condition that’s chronic and going on daily right here on domestic soil.”

While plenty of good has already come out of the production—President Obama made a rare address on the issue, and survivors have said The Invisible War has helped save their marriages—Ziering stresses that she hopes the film’s influence will extend beyond lawmakers.

In an era in which we no longer have the draft, much of the nation, Ziering fears, may feel disconnected from its troops. After men and women serve years protecting liberties enjoyed by the general population, Ziering hopes that the American public might do something to return the favor.

“We need to say [soldiers] need to be afforded the same civil rights and the same access to fair, unbiased systems of justice that they have pledged to give their lives to fight for us,” says Ziering, who has also launched the site NotInvisible.org to find ways to take action. “Unlike more intractable social problems, this is a problem the military can change if it owns it and takes it on.”

Have you or anyone you know had experience with sexual assault while in the military? Share your story in COMMENTS.

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