The invisible war

Kirby Dick’s – and Amy Ziering’s – documentary film The invisible war (2011) recently won the Audience Award at the Sundance Festival and the Nestor Almendros Award at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.  It documents, in brave detail, the incidence of rape inside the US military.  The film-makers contacted more than 100 victims, men as well as women.  The Department of Defense estimates that there were 19,000 violent sex crimes inside the military in 2010 and 22,800 in 2011; the vast majority go unreported, and of those that are there are few convictions.  Women in combat zones are more likely to be raped than killed by the enemy, but the attacks also take place far from the firing-line: on bases in the continental United States, at barracks in Washington DC.

There are powerful, thoughtful reviews of this film – including essays by Rose Aguilar, David Leonard and Marcia Yerman – and its achievements are substantial.  Gary Trudeau saw The invisible war at a special screening and used a series of Doonesbury cartoons to bring the issue to a wider public, while Rebecca Keegan reports that two days after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the film he called a press conference ‘to announce new rules on how the Pentagon would handle sex crimes.’

And yet, across all the reviews I’ve read, there’s a strange reluctance to link rape inside the military to the rape by soldiers of enemy combatants and civilians.  There is a substantial literature on rape as a weapon of war – on rape as a systematic strategy – but what I have in mind here is a structural connection between the power and cruelty involved in rape and forms of military violence. This is obviously a differentiated terrain; there was a good roundtable discussion raising a number of important issues in Eurozine in 2009, the same year that Helen Benedict’s searing account of The lonely soldier: the private war of women serving in Iraq appeared.  You can find a video of her talk at Columbia here, and there is also this short interview:

Among more recent book-length treatments I’d recommend Janie Leatherman’s Sexual violence and armed conflict (Polity, 2011), Part III of Laura Sjoberg and Sandra Via (eds), Gender, war and militarism: feminist perspectives (Praeger, 2010), and a compelling study that makes the connection between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ military rape that I’m urging here, Gina Marie Weaver’s Ideologies of forgetting: rape in the Vietnam War (SUNY Press, 2010).  Making those connections is one way of making war’s injuries, both there and here, abroad and at home, more visible – and those who perpetrate them more accountable.  Eight years after Abu Ghraib you’d think we’d have made more progress in exploring the relations between military violence and sexual violence.

Three additional notes: 

(1) On Monday, Wednesday and Friday this week (13 through 17 August) YouTube has a new three-part drama series on sexual assault in the US military, Lauren: I found news of this on Stars & Stripes, ‘the US military’s independent news source’….

(2)  Earlier this month al Jazeera hosted a discussion of military ‘cultures of rape’ between Morris Davis, a retired US air force colonel who led the investigation into the sexual abuse scandal at the US Air Force Academy in 2003; Ariana Klay, a former US Marine Officer, who is one of eight current and former military members who have filed a lawsuit alleging they were raped, assaulted, or harassed during their service; and Aaron Belkin, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University and the author of Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire, 1898-2001.

(3) Belkin’s Bring Me Men (Columbia University Press, 2012) documents male-on-male rape in the US military and en route challenges a number of existing discussions of ‘military masculinity’:  “I argue in Bring Me Men that contradictions that structure warrior masculinity look a lot like contradictions that structure U.S. empire, and that both sets of contradictions get sanitized and swept out of sight at the same moments, often by outcasts (African-Americans, women, gays and lesbians) who portray the military and the empire in noble terms as part of inclusion-seeking strategies.”  You can download the first chapter from Belkin’s own website.


2 thoughts on “The invisible war

  1. Thanks Cristina — I agree that’s a striking (perhaps the film-makers would claim it’s also a “strategic”) absence; as I noted in my original post, it’s also a striking absence from all the reviews I’ve been able to track down. I’m really pleased you’re writing about this, so please do keep in touch.

  2. Thanks for this Derek. I watched The Invisible War several weeks ago and while impressed, I was also haunted by what was absent – the connections between rape in the military and rape in war. not once was there any mention or connection to rape perpetrated by US soliders in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ll be writing on this very thing in the very near future.

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