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Zero Shades of Grey: The Invisible War Sheds Light on the Military’s Ugliest Secret

Kirby Dick’s important new documentary unravels the truth about the prevalence of sexual assault in today’s U.S. military—and the institutional cover-ups that further denigrate the victims. The movie is hard to watch, but the black-and-white realities are even harder to ignore.

In civilian life, it’s hard enough for rape victims to get the justice they deserve. Our legal system’s foundation of “innocent until proven guilty” leads to he said/she said situations where proof is not always readily available. Still, the investigations are run by a third-party justice system without an automatic investment in either side of any given case.

In the U.S. military—where women have served alongside men for over 70 years, though the numbers still skew heavily male—such unbiased investigations do not exist. Quite often, women (and men, though the majority of victims are women) who are assaulted must report their attacks to commanding officers who have a close relationship with the perpetrator—or, in some cases, are the perpetrator. Clearly, this is a direct conflict of interest of the highest order. As a result, only a small fraction of cases are ever prosecuted to the fullest extent. In the worst cases, the tables are turned on the victim in the most egregious ways: they are accused of—and punished for—lying, adultery, etc. 

The Invisible War (directed by Kirby Dick, Outrage, TFF 2009) uncovers the ugly truth about women—and men—who are twice-victimized by the military in which they proudly served: first, by their attackers, and second, by an ingrained set of institutional policies that treat their attacks as pesky flies that need to be swatted. In interview after heart-wrenching interview, the victims’ candid, authentic recollections paint an unflinching picture of a system that is severely broken, a pattern that exists in all four branches of service.

Acute pain—both physical and emotional—is evident on a diverse parade of faces, as the survivors (and their loved ones, who are also deeply affected) take us from their initial elation and pride in serving their country through the various betrayals that are layered, deep, and lasting. Most even admit they have contemplated suicide, which reminds the viewer of the recent statistic that more soldiers have killed themselves this year than have died in combat. (It should be noted that most of the assaults recounted in the film did not happen during deployment overseas; they happened right here at home, on bases as prestigious as the Marine Barracks Washington.)

At a preview screening last Thursday, director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering talked about the five years of interviews, investigations and deep-dive research—including numerous Freedom of Information Act requests—that led to the release of the film. They have taken a two-pronged approach to marketing the film—grassroots and “grass-tops,” with the latter an attempt to show the film to those who decide policy in the government—illustrating their hope that The Invisible War can have a real impact on effecting concrete change. Indeed, a heartening coda to the film explains how, two days after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta viewed the film in April, he immediately made a policy change, whereby commanders are no longer the sole decision-makers as to whether rape charges go forward or not. And just last week, after Dick and Ziering appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Vice President Joe Biden reached out to the filmmakers requesting a copy of the film.

There is much debate and rhetoric—on both sides of the aisle—about the levels of support we as a country show the soldiers and veterans who serve and protect us daily. While there is no guarantee that they will be safe from harm in combat situations, what should never be in question is their day-to-day safety among their colleagues.

How can you help?

♦ See the film. The Invisible War opened on Friday in select cities (NYC, San Francisco, Santa Monica, and Washington). In the coming weeks, look for it in cities across the country.

If the film is not showing in your city, request a screening or host one of your own.

Make your voice heard. The filmmakers have set up a #notinvisible campaign across the Web and social media. To find out more, visit

Watch (and share) the trailer:


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