Steeped in tradition and boasting a history of national service, the United States Armed Forces are viewed as honorable and disciplined institutions, composed of hardworking, humble and idealistic men and women brave enough to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Military recruiting media on television and elsewhere entices young people to join the service with promises of a chance to make a difference and build character. These advertisements show distinguished soldiers in crisp uniforms standing at attention against a backdrop of the American flag — the picture of integrity and dedication.

Almost all of those advertisements also show at least one female soldier. Having gained access to many military careers over the last several decades — recently, the Pentagon has begun to ease up on regulations against women serving on the front lines of armed combat — women now make up 15 percent of America’s military forces. Over 200,000 women are currently on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Of those women, an estimated 40,000 (20 percent of active-duty female soldiers) have seen a side of their male colleagues that is hardly in keeping with the image of an American soldier advanced by the military’s recruiters and champions.

The stories of those women are the focus of The Invisible War, an incredible documentary directed by Kirby Dick, previously best known for his work Twist of Faith, which focused on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

The Invisible War exposes through direct interviews the stories of women in the military who have been brutalized, harassed, physically assaulted and raped by male colleagues. In telling these stories, the film illuminates the extent to which the military hierarchy not only turns a blind eye to many incidences of rape, but further victimizes women who report the sexual assaults committed by their commanders and superiors.

While each soldier’s story is different and haunting in its own way, there are some themes that appear again and again throughout the documentary. The women recount the stories of their rapes — traumatic memories that many of them would prefer to forget — with a stoicism that seems necessary for a successful career in the military. Each woman featured excelled in her branch of the military, holding her own against colleagues both male and female while loving the work and maintaining a high level of commitment.

Then, in each instance, for no apparent reason, she began suffering from the unwanted attention of a man with whom she worked — often one of her direct supervisors — and a downward spiral of abuse and brutalization began. While some women’s interactions with their eventual rapists may have begun with seemingly innocuous sexual advances by the attacker, the relationships featured in The Invisible War descended into gruesome stories of rape, sometimes involving drugging and often physical attacks. The descriptions of the incidents are difficult to watch; their savage nature is striking, matched only by the incredible courage of these women in being able to share their stories with an audience through the movie screen.

That courage is particularly noteworthy given the response that many rape victims seem to experience within the military. When women report rapes, even if they have extensive proof — a rape kit and the testimony of several witnesses support the victims’ stories — they are often admonished or are subject to reprisal by their attackers, who are rarely convicted. In many instances, the chain of commanding officers who review the victims’ reports act as a boys’ club that protects its own; the very commanding officer who commits a rape may well be the one who decides whether or not a case can be investigated or whether a completed investigation will proceed to a court-martial.

Due to the insular nature of the military and its justice system, these women have no external recourse; even local authorities are inaccessible to soldiers working on bases where they need permission from their commanding officers to leave.

This documentary is jarring and effective, a successful indictment of a widely trusted institution that harbors, if not a secret, then at least a deep, dark truth. While The Invisible War is a must-see for all Americans of voting age because of the popular support required for change in the military, it is in no way light entertainment. There is little to find uplifting in the documentary. Through the stories of women who have been raped in the military and the commentary of legislators and others concerned about the situation, it presents a cogent case for the need for action against sexual assault in the military, something that many political leaders have called for but that evidently has not trickled down.

I walked away from the screening feeling that the documentary — which was given a 2012 Audience Award in Sundance’s U.S. documentary category — did not conclusively paint a picture of any potential for improvement in the near future. Regardless, The Invisible War deserves commendation for bringing an understudied, yet deeply concerning problem into the public consciousness.

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