The documentary “The Invisible War” premiered last week at Sundance, and it is already bringing much needed attention to the problem of rape in the military. Watching clips from the film last fall, I found the experience harrowing. I was struck by the sense of betrayal as well as violation that too many women, and a smaller number of men, encounter when they sign up to protect the national interest. It is just really hard to watch one after another woman tell us how she was assaulted, how authorities failed to protect her both before and after the attack, and how post-traumatic stress disrupts every attempt to rebuild her life. As tough as it is to witness, though, it has to be harder to live, and more witnesses are clearly needed to pressure military leaders to act. Their failure to do so is unforgivable, in a time when a woman is more likely to be raped by an American soldier than killed by enemy fire.
The film itself features no women of color among the major protagonists. I don’t know why that is, and I won’t speculate. I do know that thousands of young women of color join the military every year; it isn’t possible that they could escape a fate that affects so many soldiers. I bet women of color are disproportionately affected by sexual assault, as they were by Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and, as we reported earlier this week, by homelessness when they return stateside as veterans. I hope that advocates working on this issue take into account additional or just different barriers faced by women of color. Putting proposed remedies through a racial equity impact analysis may help with that.
A slightly strange item in the production notes on the film’s website has director Kirby Dick comparing the military’s anti-racism efforts to its lack of action on rape. The armed forces had to integrate after centuries of racial exclusion, and many people argue that it did a better job of that than, say, our public education systems. Today racism is less evident in the military than in the larger society, Kirby points out, and he wants the institutions to achieve similar results on sexual assault.
It is true that such a campaign took place, but readers will understand my skepticism about lower rates of racial discrimination in the military than elsewhere. Recent hazing scandals in which Chinese American soldier Danny Chen was targeted with deadly, racially tinged assaults and 2009 reports that the armed forces had accepted white supremacists indicate that there’s still a lot to do on the race front. Acknowledging that ongoing struggle takes nothing away from the need to address sexual assault as aggressively as possible. If the model for fighting racism offers some lessons, that’s cool, but I suspect it isn’t as simple as the comparison suggests.
“The Invisible War” was inspired by Helen Benedict’s reporting on women soldiers that first appeared on Salon.com and then in “The Lonely Soldier,” which features in-depth profiles of a number of women of color, including several who were also covered in Michelle Chen’s excellent Colorlines story from 2008.
Benedict, who teaches at Columbia School of Journalism, followed up “The Lonely Soldier” with a novel that adds another critical dimension to our understanding of the female soldier, and of war in general. “Sand Queen” focuses on two women, Kate, a 19-year-old soldier and Naema, an Iraqi medical student, who strike a deal to help each other navigate their responsibilities. “Sand Queen” is a horrible victim-blaming term, a derogatory reference to supposedly unattractive women who supposedly allow themselves to be passed around among dozens of horny men who wouldn’t look twice if they had other choices. In the long tradition of stories about women on opposite sides of a war, Benedict does a great job of humanizing both, while dealing with the inequities, racial, gendered and economic, of the war in Iraq.
Many things need to be done to fight rape in the military. Sexual trauma isn’t currently included, for example, in the 2010 rules that remove barriers of proof for veterans to get help for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the prosecution rates for perpetrators reveal more concern about protecting them than their victims.
All Americans need to help push for reform, whatever our feelings about the military as an institution. This was my position on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and it hasn’t changed. For economic as well as other reasons, a great number of women of color, the vast majority very young, join the military, and they deserve our love and concern as much as anyone who is struggling through civilian life. Go see “The Invisible Soldier,” read Helen Benedict’s books, and get involved in the campaign to make real change.