Marine Ariana Klay, who brought a lawsuit against the US Military after she was raped. (The Invisible War).
On Monday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced he would ask Congress to amend Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which gives commanding officers the authority to overturn court martial convictions and sentences. His announcement comes in response to an investigation the Department of Defense conducted in the wake of Air Force Lieutenant General Craig Franklin's controversial decision to reverse a verdict that had found a fighter pilot guilty of rape. Franklin’s decision overturned the pilot’s one-year prison sentence, reinstated him in the Air Force, and placed him on a list for promotion. If Congress follows Hagel’s suggestion and passes legislation to remove this authority from commanders, it will be a notable first step in addressing the institutional factors that contribute to an estimated 19,000 service men and women being sexually assaulted each year.
Commanders, however, would still be in charge of reviewing reports of sexual assault and deciding whether to investigate or dismiss them—a problematic authority addressed in the 2012 documentary The Invisible War. The Oscar-nominated film gives voice to survivors of military sexual assault, whose stories paint a grim picture of a military culture in which misogyny and sexual harassment are pervasive, rape quietly ubiquitous and reporting these crimes means traveling a dead-end road in which survivors often find themselves experiencing a second trauma: having their claims ignored, interrogated, ridiculed or used against them.
The film has been instrumental in bringing the issue to Capitol Hill, where the House and Senate Armed Services Committees both held hearings on military sexual assault this year. Numerous Pentagon officials, including Hagel, have seen the film and it is now being used in sexual assault training programs throughout the military.
In the following interview, The Invisible War's director, Kirby Dick, and producer, Amy Ziering, share their experiences of making the film and advocating for reform, the progress they've seen so far and what else needs to happen in order to make sexual assault in the military truly the anomaly it was long believed to be. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Anna Simonton (AS): One of the most important things this film has done is to change the dialogue about sexual assault in the military. Rather than framing the problem as scandals that sometimes happen because of a few bad apples, people are now talking about it as a widespread, ongoing, institutional problem. Can you speak to that?
Kirby Dick (KD): Yes, this issue has been in the news in the past with Tailhook and the Air Force Academy, and the military has been able to present these scandals as isolated. People in this country were completely unaware, for the most part, that this was something systemic. This is not something that happens at one base or another. It happens at all bases overseas, it happens at all bases domestically, it happens in all branches. That is something that I think has really come as a shock to the public, to members of Congress, even to members of the military. I think the film has changed the discussion from this being isolated to a particular base to: No, this is a systemic problem that has to be addressed with major policy changes.
AS: Two days after viewing the film, Leon Panetta made changes to the chain of command in terms of who handles cases of sexual assault. But Lieutenant General Franklin's actions highlight the fact that this is still an issue. What change did Panetta make and how does it fall short of what is really needed to fundamentally challenge the problem of sexual assault in the military?