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

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  • Anu Bhagwati is the executive director of Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and a former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps.
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