Lieutenant Elle Helmer at the Vietnam War Memorial. Image: still from The Invisible War, a Cinedigm/Docurama Films release
Show Hide image

The Invisible War: rape is not an “occupational hazard” of serving in the military

Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated documentary reveals the extent to which rape in the military is ignored and covered up.

As the credits roll, and the post-screening discussion panel assembles at the front of the Lexi Cinema in Kensal Rise, no one speaks. The film’s relentless roll-call of violations has reduced us to silence:

  • Robin Khale US Marine Corps: It’s just after 3am, I see shadow of a human head over my body.
  • Ayana Defour US Army: Next thing you know, like I wake up and like he’s on top of me.
  • Christina Jones US Army: he pushed my legs apart and put himself on top of me and started pulling up my shirt.
  • Captain Debra Dickerson US Air force: and I wake up, and he’s on top of me. He’s already penetrated me.
  • Lee Le Teff US Army: He put his locked and loaded 45 at the base of my skull, engaged the bolt so that I knew that there was a round chambered.
  • Katie Webber US Army: All I could do was continue to concentrate on breathing.
  • Valine Demos US Army Medical Corps: when we got tested I had trich, and gonorrhoea and I was pregnant.

The New York Times said of Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated documentary, The Invisible War, that “this is not a movie that can be ignored”. It is a bitter irony for the women involved that one of the main things that cannot be ignored about this unflinching investigation into rape in the US military is how very ignored the many rapes it documents have been. Tia Christopher of the US Navy tells the filmmakers that when “they took me before my Lieutenant Commander, he says ‘d’you think this is funny’, I was like, ‘what do you mean?’, he’s like, ‘is this all a joke to you?’, I was like, ‘what do you mean?’ And he goes, ‘you’re the third girl to report rape this week; are you guys like all in cahoots, you think this is a game?’” Rather than leading commanding officers to think the army might have a problem with rape, the sheer volume of sexual assault in the military leads them to think that the women who report it must be lying.

“I was ordered to drink. I was ordered to attend the drinking events”, says Lieutenant Elle Helmer. In the next shot, Lieutenant Adriana Klay confirms that at Marine Barracks Washington (the elite grounds of the US Marine Corps), the drinking events were “mandatory”. Helmer describes how “we went to various pubs and bars, and the goal was to do a shot at each one. All paid for by the Marine Corps”. The drinking events saw, Lieutenant Klay tells us, “senior officers […] drinking to the point of peeing in their pants, passing out on lawns, this is the norm”. When Helmer ordered a glass of water at one bar she was ordered to drink two shots to make up for it.

Eventually, Helmer tells us: “I left the bar to get a cab. My company commander followed me and said, ‘I need to talk to you about something’. So we walked up the stairs into his office. There was a little bit of a struggle. He tried to make an advance and tried to kiss me. I tried to leave and he slammed the door on my arms. I fell on the ground and hit my face on his desk, and the next thing I realised was I’d woken up wearing his shorts with all of my clothes off and in tremendous pain. I knew enough about me that something wasn’t right and I had felt entirely violated.”

Helmer reported the assault, and the Naval Criminal Investigation Service investigated for three days, before closing the case. Two days after that, the base commander began his own investigation. “The colonel at one point said, ‘You know, Liuetenant Helmer, boys, girls and alcohol just don’t mix. We’ll never really know what happened inside that office, only you and the major know and he’s not talking. So at this point, the investigation is closed for lack of evidence and we have reopened a new investigation, against you, for conduct unbecoming an officer, and public intoxication”.

As horrifying as this sounds, Helmer got off relatively lightly: an investigation was at least opened, even if nothing came of it. She was investigated for the public intoxication that was forced on her, rather than the sex act that was forced on her – the charge of adultery was brought against no less than three other victims who spoke to The Invisible War. As one victim pointed out, “he [her rapist] was married. I wasn’t”. 

One of the main issues The Invisible War highlights is the unparalleled power of the commanders. “You appoint the prosecution, you appoint the defence, you appoint the investigator, you’re in charge of the police force, you’re in charge of the community. You own everything. You are judge, you are jury, you are executioner”, says Captain Ben Klay, husband of Lieutenant Klay who was also raped during her time at Marine Barracks Washington. These commanders are not legally trained and, as Major General Dennis Laich points out, they have an incentive not to take rape allegations seriously, since a rape is viewed as a “failure to command”, a judgment which would “adversely affect their career”.

Major General Mary Kay Hertog, Director of the Sexual Assault and Prevention Office (whose main remit seems to be producing truly abysmal anti-rape rap adverts and videos that tell women never to go anywhere without a “buddy” for fear of being raped), assures the film-makers that “there is absolutely no conflict of interest” for commanders. And yet, beyond the career concerns that result in so many investigations being abandoned or not even initiated, The Invisible War reveals that 33 per cent of victims did not report because the person to report to was a friend of the rapist – and 25 per cent did not report because the person to report to was the rapist.

Back in Kensal Rise, Emma Norton, solicitor for the human rights organisation Liberty, is on the discussion panel, assembled here to place The Invisible War, released two years ago (although never on general release), in a UK context. She has been working with victims of rape in our military, and tells us that the situation here is marginally better. But only very marginally.

Sharon Hardy, sister of Anne-Marie Ellement, who was allegedly raped by two of her Royal Military Police colleagues, was also on the panel, and told us a story that, by this point, sounded horribly familiar. The investigation into Ellement’s alleged rape was conducted by the Royal Military Police; it was overseen by an army prosecutor “who had not done the basic rape training that all CPS lawyers do”. No charges were brought – and Ellement then faced eighteen months of relentless bullying. Eventually, she killed herself.

In the UK the commanding officer should refer serious offences to the service police – indeed, in nearly all cases he (and, as Norton says, it nearly always is a he) is required to refer those offences to the service police. The 2006 Armed Forces Act only excludes three offences from this requirement, oddly, or perhaps predictably, all three are sexual in nature: voyuerism, exposure, and sexual assault. Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, in February, pointing out this discrepancy led to “an obvious and unacceptable risk of injustice”, and asking him to address it. She has yet to receive an answer.

Emma Norton explains how the military is “a very different environment [from civilian life], because you’re living with people, you’re working with people, you’re socialising with people, and if something like [rape] happens to you and it’s the people who you trusted who do it to you, the effects can be devastating”. And in a culture where women are more often than not assumed to be lying (“even with the rape kit and everything, and my friend catching him raping me, they still didn’t believe me”), these ties hit the victims twice: once when they are raped, (Brigadier General Loree Sutton, a psychiatrist in the US Army reveals in The Invisible War, that the effect on the victims is “akin to what happens with a family with incest”) and again when they report, where they, rather than the men who raped them, are framed as the aggressor who has split up the family.

In Ellement’s case this false framing of the victim as the trouble-maker resulted in her being called a slag, a slut, the girl who cried rape, and ultimately, in her suicide; for nearly every woman interviewed for The Invisible War, it resulted in the end of her career. “If I have a difficult time with anything”, says Myla Haider, who used to be a Sergeant at the Army Criminal Investigation Division, “it’s about the fact that I had an almost ten year career, which I was very invested in, and I gave that up to report a sex offender who was not even put to justice or put on the registry and he’s probably doing the same thing right now”. Indeed, the final film credits reveal that “Myla’s assailant [who had raped several other women in the army CID] became a supervisor at a major US corporation and sexually assaulted a female employee”.

We should not be under any illusion that the civilian system is fit for purpose - it’s not. Of all the rapes that are reported in England and Wales (and the vast majority never are), only 6.5 per cent ever secure a conviction. The no-crime rate (when police decide that a reported crime is, in fact, not a crime) for rape in England and Wales is over three times that for overall recorded crime. But Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape, the third panellist, revealed that in the UK military, the conviction rate for reported rapes is 1 per cent. Even if we look at the conviction rates for cases that actually make it to court, Longstaff points out, whereas civilian court convictions stand at 63 per cent, in court martials the rate is 16 per cent.

In 2011, lawyer Susan Burke filed a suit on behalf of sixteen victims of rape against former US Secretaries of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and Robert M Gates, for their respective roles in the military’s “systemic failure to stop rape and sexual assault”. The case was dismissed, with the court ruling that rape was an “occupational hazard” for military personnel. In the current culture of the military, where sexual harassment is dismissed as banter (despite studies showing that in units where sexual harassment is allowed, incidents of rape triple); where a Navy study found that 15 per cent of incoming recruits had attempted or committed rape before entering the military; where 20 per cent of female veterans have been assaulted while serving, perhaps that is an accurate assessment. Certainly, all the subsequent appeals and cases that Burke has filed, have all been dismissed on the basis that rape is an occupational hazard of serving in the military.

Back in the UK, the Anne-Marie Ellement rape case has been re-opened. There is a degree of independence this time: half of the investigation is being handled by the civilian rather than the military police. But the case will most likely be tried in a military, rather than a civilian court, since the alleged rape took place overseas. Assuming the case gets to court, that 16 per cent conviction rate doesn’t look good. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here: the 1 per cent conviction rate for reported rapes means that, despite the media scrutiny, despite the watchful eye of Liberty’s lawyers, the Ellement case is by no means guaranteed to even be granted a hearing, partial or fair.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
Show Hide image

Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution