The documentary that won this year’s Sundance Film Festival Audience Award, and the author whose article inspired it, will be at Burning Books on Thursday.
“The Invisible War,” written and directed by Kirby Dick (“This Film is Not Yet Rated,” “Twist of Faith”), investigates the rampant occurrence of rape in the U.S. armed forces, exposing a military culture where sexual assaults are covered up and those who speak up are met with reprisals.
The statistics, revealed between powerful and heartrending stories of rape victims, are shocking. Some 22,800 violent sex crimes occurred in the military in 2011, according to Department of Defense estimates, with female soldiers in combat zones more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by the enemy.
Looked at another way, about one in five women – half between the ages of 18 and 21 – will be raped or sexually assaulted while serving their country. And prosecution rates are low even when sexual assaults are grossly underreported, with just 191 sexual predators convicted by court-martial last year.
Men aren’t spared, either – 1 percent say they, too, were sexually abused by fellow soldiers or officers.
“I originally set out to find why women enlist, and what it’s like for women to be in combat,” said Helen Benedict, whose article, “The Private War of Women Soldiers,” published in Salon in March 2007, led Dick and producer Amy Ziering to make the documentary.
Benedict, a Columbia University journalism professor who is also in the film, said she was shocked by the frequency of sexual abuse while conducting interviews.
“I kept hearing more and more stories from women about assault, bullying and harassment from their fellow soldiers, the very ones they were supposed to turn to to watch their backs in battle,” Benedict said. “Several said they felt more in danger from them than from the enemy.”
The first woman soldier Benedict interviewed, a “very young” looking former gunner, told her “if you’re a girl in the Army, the guys only let you be three things – a bitch if you won’t sleep with them, a whore [if you do], or a dyke if they don’t like you. So you can’t win.”
Benedict found studies funded by the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs Department on reported assaults, but also extensive surveys conducted with veterans that revealed how much more prevalent unreported rape was.
To boost recruitment during the Bush administration, Benedict also learned waivers were granted that allowed people with criminal records, including large numbers convicted for sexual assaults against women, into the military.
Benedict expounded on her article with the 2009 book, “The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq.” She followed that up with “Sand Queen,” a novel recently published in paperback, that sees the war through the eyes of a woman soldier and an Iraqi woman.
Benedict said the film has given the issue of rape in the military added importance. “I think it’s a very hard-hitting, powerful and professionally made film, and so it carries a weight that is already having a huge political effect.”
The film has been shown on Capitol Hill, where hearings have been held. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta watched it on April 14, and two days later directed military commanders to hand over all sexual assault investigations to a higher-ranking colonel. He also announced the establishment of a Special Victims Unit for each branch of the armed forces.
“Some policies have been changed,” Benedict said, adding much more needs to occur.
The film has also had the effect of giving Benedict’s earlier work more credibility.
“The first few years I was met with great skepticism, and called a downright liar. What’s nice about this film is that now everybody believes me. Now the question is, ‘What do we do about it?’,” Benedict said.
“I’ve just wanted to do justice for these women, because the courage that it takes to speak up about being persecuted within the military is enormous. The whole culture pressures you to shut up, because you’re seen as a traitor.”
What: “The Invisible War,” with appearance by writer Helen Benedict
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Burning Books, 420 Connecticut St.
Tickets: Free; donations requested