“The Invisible War”

Congresswomen Niki Tsongas sponsored a screening of the “The Invisible War” last night at the Lowell National Park visitor center. This 2010 documentary explores the incidence of rape and sexual assault in the military (the Department of Defense itself estimates that in 2010 alone, there were more than 19,000 violent sexual assaults committed by service members against other service members). Equally disturbing as the assaults themselves was the depiction of a military justice system that is more likely to put the victim on trial than the assailant. In the military, the commander is ultimately responsible for the investigation, prosecution and punishment of crimes, but it is also in the commander’s best interest to have a unit that is free from sexual assaults which creates an inherent conflict in the decision-maker. Saying the investigation should be handled by an outside authority sounds right (and it is) but it also ignores the reality of duty in combat zones or in isolated corners of the world. The film also depicts a military hierarchy not necessarily in denial of the problem but unrealistic in the solutions offered thus far. Check out the video trailer of the movie below and try to find the full film online or at another local screening. It’s definitely worth seeing – for everyone.

Before the film began, Congresswomen Tsongas made some brief introductory remarks. She stressed that with the military already 13% female and on a pathway to be 25% female by 2025, dealing realistically with the problem of sexual assaults on service members is essential both because it’s the right thing to do but also to ensure that the military will be able to attract the number of female service members it will need to continue to perform its mission. (Congresswoman Tsongas’s interest in the condition of females in the military is not limited to the problem of sexual assault; the body armor specifically designed to fit and protect the female torso that is required by legislation Tsongas pushed through Congress is now being fielded as is described in this recent Time magazine article).

At the conclusion of the film, Congresswoman Tsongas led a panel discussion that included two rape crisis counselors and three women veterans, all of whom were victims of sexual assault. While the movie was certainly powerful, hearing the same thing from these women, all incredibly brave for coming before a crowd of more than 100 strangers to share their very painful stories, was extremely moving. For all the problems identified, the panel did leave the crowd with some reason for hope. As a closed, hierarchical system (which is a contributing factor to this problem), the military also has the ability to change its practices and, more importantly, its culture, much faster than can occur in the rest of society. With the proper leadership within the military and proper oversight from Congress and the public, the possibility of bringing this crisis under control certainly exists.