Shocked and Awed

by: Michael Shields

Patriotism at a cost for American soldiers….

Filmmakers have a unique power.  It is the power associated with all forms of storytelling yet with the added value of being able to, sometimes, actually catch on tape revealing subject matter and share it with the world.  They have the power to open peoples eyes; to make your heart skip a beat, make your stomach turn, or incite action.  They can drop your jaw to the floor with a thud loud as thunder.

He’s done it before.  In 2009 he outed closeted politicians who lobby for anti-gay legislation in the film ‘Outrage – Do Ask Do Tell’.  A few years prior to that he made the bold move of going after the American movie ratings board in ‘This Film is Not Yet Rated’.  In 2004’s ‘Twist of Faith’ he investigated pederasty within the Catholic Church.  Presently Kirby Dick exposes, in telling and dramatic fashion, the epidemic of rape of soldiers in the US military1 in the film ‘The Invisible War’, a film that shines the light at a problem that has been concealed in the dark for far too long.

An estimated 30 percent of servicewoman are assaulted during their enlistment2.  A gruesome number only exacerbated by the fact it is generally believed that 15% of these incidents are not reported.  And it isn’t just the rape that is damaging, as appalling a statement as that is; its also how things are handled post-assault.  Many cases are not even prosecuted as claims of violent assaults are just swept under the rug.  In multiple situations it was found that the senior officer that you would, according to the chain of command, report such a violation to was the man himself responsible, or a close associate willing to do whatever it takes to make the situation go away3  JAG officers have often been instructed to treat these women as criminals rather than victims.  And shockingly 35% of convicted sex offenders have been allowed to remain in the army.

But this is slowly changing, due to the power of film.  This film, ‘The Invisible War’.

One of the villains in the documentary is one Leon Panetta, the US Secretary of Defense.  As it happens one of the producers of the film, Jennifer Siebel Newson, is married to the Lieutenant Governor of California.  She, with help of her husband, got the film into the hands of Panetta’s Chief of Staff.  Two days after the film was screened by the entire staff, a series of changes were announced4. On April 16th a directive requiring local commanders to hand over investigations to an outside higher-ranking colonel was announced.  Also a special victims unit would be created who were trained specifically to deal with sexual assaults and promises of increased training in awareness to incoming service members were made.

Is this enough?  Definitively not…..but a start.  These changes are the just the beginning, and when we begin to see some real results in terms of an emphasis placed on prosecution then we will know for sure that we are truly moving in the correct direction5.

What is so stunning in this film besides the accusations made by these women is that the victims of these detestable crimes, unbelievably, still believed in the army, as it should be.  They still embraced their service with pride and professionalism.  They still believed in the cause.

Truth, it is well documented, is stranger than fiction.  Truth can also, at it’s worse, be much more gruesome, violent, disgusting, and hideous than fiction could ever hope to be.  These are things actually happening to people.  These are real life people suffering, enduring the unimaginable.   I struggle to get my head around what some people must endure in their lives, and what people have the capacity to do to others – the capacity to hurt.  It aches my heart, sickens my stomach.

If we cannot ensure that the ones protecting us are too protected…..then things are worse than we can possibly imagine.

  1. “Any place where there are just men – it just seems to go to shit.  Think about it…athletics (in reference to Penn State scandal), Wall Street, Al Qaeda, and the Catholic Church – all men.” – Bill Maher []
  2. Last year 3,192 assaults were reported []
  3. Whatever it takes could mean a variety of things.  20 year old Marine Marie Laurterbach was killed by the man she accused of raping her.  He buried her body in his back yard. []
  4. In fairness to the whole story – pressure from a lawsuit Panetta and former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfield were facing had as much to do with the series of changes unveiled.  Also the hard work of Representatives Niki Tsongas (Massachusetts), Michael Turner (Ohio), and Loretta Sanchez (California) cannot be overlooked, they have been on the front lines of this battle for some time.  Sanchez chairs the Caucus on Women in the Military, while Turner and Tsongas co-chair the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus. []
  5. Rather than a few politicians who are backed against the walls touting a few reflex-promises that will never fully be implemented or enforced. []

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