where life's not empty, it's restless.

The Invisible War

The other night, I walked out of the SIFF Cinema Uptown smoldering. I had just seen a film called The Invisible War, and I was angry.

I was not alone. Everyone who walked out of that Women’s Funding Alliance-sponsored screening had what you might call a smolder-y look. Because what we’d just watched bore vivid witness to one of those facts that are meaningless until you start attaching names and faces to them. In this case, the fact is this: one in five women in the United States military have reported being raped. And no one’s willing to guess how many more have been raped but have not reported it, out of legitimate fear, as we saw depicted in this film, of what it would do to their careers.

As long as “rape victims” are referred to collectively and anonymously, they are not human beings that we need to personally worry about. But once you’ve seen a woman tell her story on camera, you can’t go back to how you felt before you saw her. Phrases like, I screamed and screamed and no one came; I woke up and he was on top of me; He threw me so hard he permanently damaged my spine have a way of lodging in your brain.

These were women who wanted to serve their country. Young idealists. Soldiers as fit and fearless as the men with whom they served. They reported being raped because they believed justice would be done. In nearly every case, “justice” turned out to be protection for the perpetrator and the end of a career for the victim. One was even told that rape is an “occupational hazard” of military service—meaning, apparently, that a good soldier tolerates it without complaining.

I believe the women in The Invisible War spoke to filmmaker Kirby Dick because they know that telling their stories, out loud and on screen, is now their best remaining option for moving people to action.  And painful though their stories are, these soldiers are crystal-clear about what happened to them.

But as the General Petraeus sex scandal continues to unfold like a season of Dallas, what’s disturbing to ponder is the number of women who feel they can’t talk about what happened to them in the military because maybe it’s not so crystal-clear. They’ve heard Republican politicians trying to parse phrases like “forcible rape,” as if there was some other kind, so they know how far they’d get with a story of what they felt they had to do to keep from being raped; a story of how deployment turned out to be a moral trip through the looking glass into a wonderland where marriage and family and ties to home meant nothing and if you didn’t play along, well, then your fellow soldiers might not have your back.

One of the military’s anti-rape PR campaigns features the slogan, “Ask her when she’s sober.” What if she says no when she’s sober? Then what?

And now we profess shock, shock! That General Petraeus, the man at the very top, the role model of all role models, married for 38 years, was embroiled in an affair. How ironic that one of the charges leveled at many of the women in The Invisible War was adultery: not because they were married, because in most cases, they weren’t, but because their attacker was. Married. So… the victim was charged with adultery.  Now we really are deeply through the looking glass.

Tolerance of rape as an occupational hazard in the U.S. Military must end. But so must tolerance of an alternate moral universe, in which female soldiers are pressured to play along—when they’re sober, of course—because if they don’t, who knows? they could be raped. And then accused of adultery.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

I loved teaching Intro to Memoir Writing so much I’m teaching it again this winter at SCCC. Starts Jan 2. Six Wednesday nights. Spread the word!

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.









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3 thoughts on “The Invisible War

  1. What a well written powerful piece. I am horrified at the statistics, the situation, the covering up. It saddens and angers me all at once. How in the world is this happening?

  2. I haven’t seen this film, though it sounds powerful!

    When I worked as a therapist at the Rape Crisis Center in Albuquerque, we occasionally had women clients from the base there and often the cases were laden in strange protocol. When I was first working there, it was against military law for survivors to go anywhere for outside help if their military doctors didn’t know, but if the military doctors knew, the doctors were required to follow up with commanding officers and chain of command. So a woman trying to get help turned into people in positions above her, sometimes even the rapist, being told about the rape, making her more of a target for harassment, greater violence, threats etc.

    I stopped working there completely in June of 2011 and at that point, we hadn’t gotten very many survivors for about two years as the base had amped up the services they provided. People at the center were working with people from the base on shaping their programs and changing the military law, but I’m not sure where it was in the process.

    It’s a huge problem! It’s a very male dominated system that thrives on power, control, and violence, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s not okay. And it’s terrifying to think of being stuck in a system where you are in danger from those who are supposed to have your back.
    Thanks for the post!
    -Liza Wolff-Francis, Matrifocal Point

  3. Natasha on said:

    Wow, Ann, I felt your heat, and my heart hurts for these women. It’s infuriating and so unnecessary.
    Why is it so hard to do the right thing? I mean really? Sometimes it seems like for people not to abuse their children, murder their families or coworkers (or movie-goers), or rape women requires super human willpower! I want to ask what’s wrong with the world, but I’m honestly afraid of the answer.

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