Depicting an Invisible War
I was on the subway, reading. A man glanced over my shoulder, and I could feel him reading along with me. I can’t recall if I was reading the part about a female soldier in Iraq who was gang raped by her fellow Americans and charged with indecent exposure, essentially making her guilty of her own rape. Or if it was the part about a solider who was raped when she went for a brief cigarette break, or one of the many parts about a solider being harassed or assaulted by her supervisor. I was reading The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq by Helen Benedict. When the man finally asked what I was reading, I merely said it was a book about women in combat and sexual assault.
Wookies, he said, somewhat embarrassed. In the South, or at least in Louisiana where he was from, that’s what women in the armed forces were known as. Wookies. He said he has a lot of friends who’d served in Iraq. I’d never head the word, and I asked what it meant.
“It’s just a word for a woman who’s a soldier,” he explained. I pressed on. Yes, but what does it mean? Does it have a certain connotation? “It’s just a word for woman who’s a solider,” he repeated. Then we got sidetracked talking about a friend of his who’d had a piece of shrapnel stuck in his face.
When I got home I looked up “wookie” on Urban Dictionary. It is indeed a word for a female solider, but in context, it specifically refers to a woman who is ugly, hairy, incompetent in combat and therefore needs to be put in her place: “Hey there wookie, get in the kitchen and make me a sammich!” is the least offensive example offered of its usage. One blog explains that women at war are called “wookies” because “they are bull dykes on crack who resemble Chewbacca from Star Wars when nude.” There was not one reference or use of the word that didn’t have connotations of ugliness, subservience or ineptitude.
It struck me that as I was reading a book about the shocking frequency of sexual assault in the US Military and the systemic cover-up of such abuse, the way a stranger identified with the subject was by using a slur. Maybe he simply knew no other word. But that’s precisely the problem: there are no words.
“…misogynist language is so deeply engrained in military culture as to be reflexive. Yet it serves as a constant reminder to women that, even as they are winning honors and advancing in numbers and positions in the military, when it comes to the group, they are alone.” - Helen Benedict, The Lonely Soldier
With this in mind, I was led to The Invisible War, an investigative documentary directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering that draws from The Lonely Soldier to expose the startling epidemic of rape in the military. I also revisited Sand Queen, Helen Benedict’s second book on the topic – this time, a novel. All three give voice to stories that formerly had no words.
Journalist, novelist and academic, Benedict was one of the first to report on the startling prevalence of rape in the military in a 2007 Salon article. When Oscar-nominated filmmaker Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering came across Benedict’s piece, they were blown away by the extent of the military’s sexual assault crisis: Since 2006, more than 95,000 service members have been sexually assaulted in the U.S. military; a staggering 19,000 violent sex crimes occurred in 2010 alone, according to estimates from the Department of Defense. Because victims of sexual assault must report incidents of abuse their commanders - who, in some cases, are the perpetrators themselves - it’s no wonder that more than 86 percent of service members do not report their assaults. What these statistics translate to is sobering: Today, a female soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow solider than killed by enemy fire.
Almost immediately after reading Benedict’s article, says Dick, he knew he had his next film. But how to get soldiers to speak on camera who for so long had been shamed into silence and made to feel invisible?
“Finding the subjects was a challenge,” says Dick. “Many are very agoraphobic, they blame themselves, they’re on medications, and they’re unlikely to find us. We contacted attorneys, therapists, we were working through Facebook. There was really a full year of research.”
After doing initial phone interviews with dozens of soldiers, Kirk and Ziering took a cross-country trip and traveled to the homes of men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, gathering testimonies about military sexual assaults for The Invisible War, their documentary juxtaposing the wrenching stories of individual soldiers with interviews of high-ranking military officials and members of Congress.
“It’s one thing to learn the specifics and understand how horrific it is, and it’s a deeper level of understanding to speak to these women, and find out who they are and what they went through,” says Dick. “It’s an incredible miscarriage of justice over and over and over. And what’s so striking is that it follows the same arc and pattern with each one.”
Shame and secrecy are familiar territory to Kirby Dick. His previous films have dealt with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church (Twist of Faith), the hypocrisy of closeted politicians who promote anti-gay policies (Outrage), and the shady moving ratings system promoted by The Motion Picture Association of America (This Film Is Not Yet Rated). Yet in The Invisible War, secrecy goes to a whole new level. For some of the subjects interviewed, the very first time they’d ever verbalized their stories was in front of the camera. For the filmmakers, it was this silence – and pushing past it, while being careful not to re-traumatize the victims – that carried the story. Dick describes it as a “transformative experience” for him as well as the subjects.
The film premiered at the 2012 Sundance film festival to a standing ovation and took home the prestigious Audience Award. Today, the story is at long last gaining much-deserved attention by the Department of Defense. Yet initially, many people were wary to believe.
“When I first started writing and talking about this subject back in 2007, and all the way through the next two to three years, it was so new to many people that I was met with a great deal of skepticism and was quite often attacked,” says Benedict. ‘People just didn’t want to believe it.”
As I read The Lonely Soldier, I thought about Tim O’Brien’s description of a true war story in The Things they Carried. The horrors of combat – and those of sexual assault – are traumas that live in the body as much as the brain. These atrocities cannot be understood intellectually. A war story worth its salt had to make the reader feel it: “It comes down to gut instinct,” writes O’Brien. “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.”
After years of gathering testimonies for The Lonely Soldier, Benedict understood that many survivors would “hit a wall” in their stories and simply be unable to continue.
“They would sometimes shake or cry or be silent or have panic attacks and not be able to breath, or tell jokes or just say flat out that they couldn’t bear to talk about a particular memory,” says Benedict, recalling her interviews. “And I came to realize that in was in those silences in which they could not or would not talk that the true inner experience of war lay. And that’s the territory of fiction — what goes on deep inside people that they either cannot or will not access.”
It’s what led her to write Sand Queen, a novel that weaves the story of 19-year-old solider Kate Brady with that of Naema Jassim, an Iraqi medical student whose father is detained in a makeshift prison that Kate is guarding. A Sand Queen is a derogatory term for a female soldier serving in Iraq or Afghanistan who wouldn’t be considered attractive as a civilian, but within the context of war relishes in male attention. The novel traces Kate’s path from an eager, idealistic young woman to a near meltdown after abuse from her fellow soldiers and harassment from prisoners.
The part of the story that facts fail to express is the contrast between the initial loyalty and commitment of soldiers like the character Kate Brady, and the resulting cynicism and disappointment of being betrayed not just by the soldier who assaulted them, but also by the entire institution to which they devoted their lives and their careers. The Invisible War also deals with this theme, but as a documentary, it doesn’t just give voice to untold stories. It depicts the shame, trauma, and eventual catharsis of the telling.
In one particularly powerful scene, the camera fixes on the face of Kori Cioca, who was raped and beaten by her Coast Guard Supervisor. For a good thirty seconds, the camera holds steady as she tries to keep it together, unable to get out the words out until finally, she does: “He raped me.”
Cioca, who suffered a painful jaw injury as a result of abuse, was unable to get the VA to cover the costs of the surgery she desperately needs because technically, the injury was not combat-related.
Part of what makes the film effective is the distinction between the woman Cioca now is – hardened and anxiety-ridden, showing us counters full of medications, waiting on hold with the VA in a desperate attempt to get her medical claim evaluated – with the wide-eyed, eager young cadet she was, who joined the military for the discipline, camaraderie and a love of her country. Yes, these are soldiers who have been to war, and that fact carries its own weight. But there’s a cutting edge of anger and despair that is palpable. Later in the film, we see Cioca pull out the two things she always carries with her: a cross and a knife. Her face is turned away from the camera when she says, “You always have protection with Jesus, but sometimes you need just a little bit more.
“You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.” – Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
Though Benedict’s books came out in 2009 and 2011, respectively, it wasn’t until recently when the documentary was released that the issue came to the forefront of public consciousness.
“When it’s out there on a Hollywood level documentary, suddenly it seems valid,” agrees Benedict. “People just seem to be more willing to believe a film than they are an individual author, for whatever reason. I feel really backed up by the movie, and that’s been great.”
“Given the cutbacks on our investigative bureau, and the more ADD culture that we’re in, people rely on films more than ever for their source of information. It’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s sort of the way it is,” says Ziering. “I think we hit our target of the right balance of information and pathos so that it really did move people not only emotionally but also intellectually.”
Even before opening nationwide, the film has already made a profound impact. Though Dick anticipated a potential a backlash from the military, the response thus far has been overwhelmingly positive. High-ranking officials, including Leon Panetta, have seen the film. Various branches SHARP (Sexual Assault and Harassment Response Program) have talked about making the film an integral part of their programming. After the Sundance screening, says Dick, an audience member even agreed to pay for Cioca’s surgery.
Part of what makes the film an effective vehicle for social change is the balance between information and pathos, as well as the chasm between the soldiers’ lived experiences and the perception of such experiences from those in power. When former director of the military’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office Kaye Whitley naively suggests that female soldiers use the buddy system when going out alone to prevent rape - after we’ve just heard the testimony of a woman who was assaulted by a soldier walking her home - the entire enterprise seems almost belligerently ignorant of the realties of women at war. These scenarios are cringe-worthy: first because of what the soldiers go through, then because of the way it is addressed. Through the film’s unraveling, the Pentagon and high-ranking officials essentially dig their own graves.
Yet Dick emphasizes that this is really only the beginning, and whether or not the film can prompt one of the most powerful and guarded institutions in the world to truly transform the way it deals with its most shameful secret remains to be seen. Benedict, too, notes that as increasing numbers of female veterans return from war who’ve experienced the double trauma of combat and military sexual assault, they may need resources that the VA isn’t equipped to handle. Ironically, in the end it is the victim’s voices that resonate with clarity and truth, and the military’s decades-long silence on the issue becomes the real story of shame and humiliation.
The documentary The Invisible War is now playing in theatres across the United States.
Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist and writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, at the Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere. She blogs at www.alizahsalario.com or follow her on Twitter @alirosa.