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[Trigger warning: graphic description of sexual assault]

On Friday American documentary Invisible War was nominated for an Oscar. It is hard viewing. It is also entirely necessary viewing. American viewers need to know just how their country's armed forces treat the women who volunteer to serve their country. Australian viewers, with the revelations about ADFA and the Australian military undoubtedly on their minds, need to understand the consequences of failing to take those revelations seriously.

20% of servicewomen are sexually assaulted during their service. 

The 112th United States Congress, which ended with 2012, was one of the least productive ever. They could not agree on anything, not even on the most basic things, like funding to prevent violence against women. But as the year came to a close, the 112th Congress did manage to get something done: they agreed to pass a law allowing women in the military who are raped during their service to use their military health insurance to pay for an abortion if they get pregnant as a result of that rape. 

It's a welcome change in the law, because a lot of women are raped while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Official government reports indicate that 20% of servicewomen are sexually assaulted during their service, and advocates suggest that because so few women report what happens to them, the real figure is much higher. The Invisible War is about the epidemic of sexual violence in the military and about the military's failure to staunch it by properly punishing sexual assailants. Unsurprisingly, this film, directed by Kirby Dick (This Film is Not Yet Rated) and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Miss Representation) and Abigail Disney (Pray the Devil Back to Hell, The Queen of Versailles), is stomach-churning stuff.

Kori was in the Coast Guard, and during her rape, she has hit so hard across the face that a doctor she saw later thought she had been in a car accident. Trina was in the Navy, and was repeatedly drugged and raped, and told by her assailants that if she told anyone what had happened, they would kill her. Elle was in the Marines, and her boss slammed both of her arms in his office door after he made an advance and she tried to leave. She fell down and hit her head on his desk. When she woke up, she was wearing nothing but his shorts, and was in "tremendous pain." These are just a few of the stories we hear in The Invisible War; there are literally thousands more out there, as many as five hundred thousand from women since the Armed Forces started admitting women, and as many as twenty thousand from men in the last year alone.

Kori's rapist wasn't punished. Neither was Trina's, or Elle's, or any of the other assailants who committed violent assaults against the women we meet in The Invisible War. Quite the opposite, in fact: in several of the cases, investigations against the men were cursory at best, and the women found themselves the targets of investigations that opened as a result of their coming forward. Elle was investigated for public intoxication and unbecoming conduct. Andrea Werner, a Marine, was raped by a married man in her unit. She was unmarried, but was charged with adultery. He wasn't charged with anything. In some cases, like that of Hannah, who was in the Navy, there was a concerted effort to sweep the allegations under the rug. Hannah was told that her rape kit and the photos of her bruised body had been lost. By the time she discovered that NCIS in fact had them - they still do - it was too late to investigate. In many cases, the assailants have been promoted and decorated. In one year, the filmmakers estimate, 3223 members of the armed forces are accused of sexual violence against fellow servicemembers, a number that, because of low reporting rates, in no way represents how many perpetrators there really are. Out of those 3223, only 175 will serve time in jail. The vast majority of assailants will get away with it.

The women and men who are assaulted, meanwhile, those who are denied justice by an institution that makes it almost impossible to seek redress, struggle to keep their heads above water. Almost all the survivors we meet in The Invisible War seriously considered or attempted suicide. The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among survivors of military sexual assault is higher than it is for men who have fought in combat. No wonder, then, that so many homeless women veterans - 40% of them - were assaulted while they were serving. "They can't hold their lives together," one expert tells the filmmakers.

A female soldier visits a Washington War Memorial in a scene from <The Invisible War</i>.

Toward the end, several of the women we've met during the film are meeting with a Congresswoman. The women are in Washington, D.C. to talk to sympathetic members of Congress in hopes that those legislators will take up their cause, which is to hold the military accountable for their failure to hold accountable the rapists in its ranks. The Congresswoman, Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat from California, is commending the women on their courage in filing a class action suit against the military, and in finding the strength to speak out about what happened to them. She says that she understands that recovering from the trauma of sexual assault is incredibly difficult. As she says it, her words seem to stick in her throat for a moment, and she glances down at her lap. "Don't think I don't know," she says. "I know." At this moment, you realise that Rep. Loretta Sanchez isn't just a sympathetic member of Congress; she is almost certainly an empathetic one. At this moment, you realise that there's a very good chance that every single person on camera in this scene has been raped.

It's a scene that drives home the need for more women in leadership; almost all the politicians we see calling for a solution to this epidemic  are women. The good news is that the 113th Congress, which was sworn in just over a week ago, has twenty women in it, more than ever before in American history. Unfortunately, most of the people with real power to implement real change in the military are men.

We don't meet a lot of men in The Invisible War. The presence of men is always implied, of course - none of these women was assaulted by another woman - but we don't see a lot of them. When we do, it provides some of the most gut-wrenching testimony in the entire film. Hannah's father, himself an enlisted serviceman, does his interview in uniform. Speaking about what happened to his daughter, he begins to cry. It's almost palpable, the sense of betrayal he feels at how his daughter was treated by the institution to which he has devoted his life. After she was attacked, she had three pinched nerves in her back and could hardly walk. Worse, in her eyes, though, was the fact that she was "no longer a virgin." Watching her father recount the phone call in which she revealed that she wasn't a virgin anymore is heartbreaking. So, too, is the footage of another man, Andrea's husband, when he describes how his wife's personality changed as a result of the post-traumatic stress after her rape. He breaks down as he remembers what it was like to have one hand on his phone, calling 911, while with the other hand he tried to stop his wife from killing herself. And then, there's Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. He never appears in the film, but, we're told at the end, he watched the movie and two days later announced a new structure for reporting sexual violence in the military so that the chain of command is less likely to prevent survivors from obtaining justice.

The Invisible War is really hard to watch, because of how important and how horrific the subject matter is. These people put their lives on the line to defend their country, and now, their dignity, their health, their sanity – their lives – are on the line. If we can’t protect the people who protect us, if we can’t keep soldiers from raping each other, we have to ask ourselves: what else is on the line?

* Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline 131 114, Mensline 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.