Amherst Magazine

Beyond the Personal

Reviewed by Paul Rieckhoff ’98

[Documentary] At first glance, The Invisible War may look like yet another film shedding light on a niche, though horrific, problem within a small community. Yet, this incredibly important project is already helping to shape a national conversation.

The film, directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering ’84, chronicles the growing prevalence of sexual assault in the military and the historical and widespread inability to effectively end it. The Invisible War goes beyond simply exposing injustices to peeling away the layers of an institutional failure across the American military.

Amy Ziering '84Amy Ziering '84

The film features several stories of rape and the prolonged impact of each attack. We watch Kori Cioca, a Coast Guard seaman whose jaw was dislocated during her rape, sort through dozens of bottles of medication, wait on multiple calls to the Department of Veterans Affairs and describe the ongoing physical and psychological fallout from her attack.

We hear from Ariana Klay, a Marine lieutenant, about her downward spiral that led to a suicide attempt in 2011. And we see her husband, a Marine himself, break down as he retells the story of trying to prevent her from killing herself.

These stories are horrifying not only because they happened at all, but also because they weave into a larger and familiar narrative with other victims’ stories. Furthermore, because rape breaks the hallowed bonds for which the military is so well known, the assault seeps beyond the personal and into the professional.

Dick and Ziering examine how the military’s restricted environment quickly becomes an incubator for sexual predators. As retired Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, a former U.S. Army psychiatrist, says in the film: “To work within a relatively closed system like the military, it becomes a prime target-rich environment for a predator.”

Because of the chain of command, too often victims must first report their rape to the attacker or the attacker’s friend. The military has produced a system where officers with little to no legal training have the power of judge, jury, prosecution, defense, investigator and executioner.

Particularly in the case of rape, servicemen and servicewomen are denied access to the civilian justice system and, until recently, were able to report rape and sexual assault only to their commanders. For many victims, this leads to professional repercussions: retaliation, charges of adultery, loss of rank. The injustices quickly add up.

Watching The Invisible War leaves one with a deep sense of outrage. As a former infantry officer myself, I wonder: How can we ask people to protect our country when we can’t keep them safe? Unfortunately, the increasingly public acknowledgement of widespread problems has not led to meaningful action.

That could be changing. After watching The Invisible War, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced new policies aimed at ending the permissive culture around sexual violence. These policies include using more-senior officers to handle sexual assault complaints and increasing the amount of preventative training.

While the victims have heard plenty of lip service in the past, this film has helped to ignite a movement. Now it’s up to us.

Rieckhoff is founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (iava.org), which works with organizations such as the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network to assist survivors of military sexual trauma.