The Unheard Victims of "The Invisible War"

The Crisis of Sexual Assault in the U.S. Military

U.S. soldiers standing at attention, 2008. (Erik de Castro / Courtesy Reuters)

The 2012 film The Invisible War, written and directed by Kirby Dick, is the first in-depth documentary to expose the crisis of sexual assault in the U.S. military. Provocative and gut-wrenching, it has won several festival awards and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Most viewers will be shocked, and then outraged, by the experiences of the veterans portrayed in the film. They should be outraged: approximately 19,300 acts of sexual assault are committed annually against service members, the overwhelming majority by fellow troops.

To explain how such violence could happen in the U.S. military, one must understand how the place of servicewomen has evolved over time. In the United States, women have been excluded from full military service in varying degrees since the inception of the republic (women fought in the Revolutionary War disguised as men). The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first decade of this century changed everything for servicewomen. Before those wars, the concept of front lines and rear areas had effectively kept most combat support troops, including women, away from direct engagement with the enemy. But front lines did not exist in Iraq, and they do not exist in Afghanistan. The battle spaces have been fluid, and, as a result, women have been exposed to hostile fire unseen in past operations. Commanders have struggled to enforce “combat exclusion,” an obsolete policy designed to keep women away from units primarily engaged in firefights.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. servicewomen found themselves doing jobs formerly done only by men, such as commanding convoys and manning machine guns on roads laden with improvised explosive devices and serving alongside combat arms personnel whose primary mission was to kick down doors and engage the enemy. They also participated in all-women Lioness and Female Engagement teams and gathered intelligence through conversations with local women -- a task unsuited for their male counterparts because of Afghan and Iraqi gender norms.

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