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

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“Trump is a great opportunity for us writers": Zadie Smith on fighting back

The author of Swing Time on Michael Jackson, female friendships and how writers can bring down Donald Trump.

In a packed college lecture hall at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 22 November, Zadie Smith joined me on stage to talk about her fifth novel. Swing Time is the story of an unnamed narrator and her childhood friend – “two brown girls” – which begins at a church hall dance class and never quite lets them go, throughout their divergent lives. Despite being a little jet-lagged from her flight from New York – where she lives with her husband, the poet and novelist Nick Laird, and their two children – Smith spoke with the cool, lucid intelligence familiar from her essays and criticism as well as her fiction. “You’re so quiet compared to American audiences,” she said to the crowd. “American audiences say thing like, ‘Uh huh! Yeah!’ just randomly in the middle of things.” Met with reverential silence, she was free to navigate fluidly between racial identity, female friendship, Barack Obama’s legacy and her love of Mad Men.

New Statesman Swing Time is about many things, but it is dance that gives the story its rhythm and arc. What’s your own relationship with dance?

Zadie Smith For me, it’s a joy. I’m a 41-year-old woman; I don’t dance that much any more. My children don’t enjoy me dancing in any context, but I love to watch it, and I found out writing this book that I love to think about it.


NS As a child, the narrator is absorbed by classic musicals and through them she discovers a handful of black dancers – the Nicholas Brothers, the young Jeni LeGon – who take on huge significance for her. Did these figures have that kind of impact on you?

ZS No, Jeni LeGon is someone I only found out about writing this book, so I had to construct what it would have been like to know about her aged five or eight; it’s like a fake memoir. But I loved that kind of early dance, and I recognise the instinct a lot of black and Asian children of my generation might have: the sense of counting the brown faces wherever we saw them, in a slightly desperate way. I definitely did that, in my everyday life, switching on the BBC and hoping to see Daley Thompson, or whoever – this kind of search for a reflection.


NS There were major black stars in the 1980s: the narrator’s friend Tracey idolises Michael Jackson and Prince.

ZS Michael Jackson’s a really interesting example, because he’s such a traumatising figure for a whole generation of kids! You were offered him as this wonder – this incredible black dancer – who then you had to watch throughout your childhood become un-black. You had to have this magical thinking and believe that he had a mysterious skin disease that does not manifest in that way in any other human on Earth, and that all this surgery also had nothing to do with it. It required a great deal of denial, and I think it did something very odd to a generation of children. He certainly loomed large in my mind as a figure of such penetrating self-hatred and self-disgust. Perhaps I have a suspicion of role models exactly for that reason, that you’re offered something – a model of behaviour or thought – but it can only ever be narrow. And then, when it goes traumatically wrong, as it did in poor Michael’s case, you’re left slightly rudderless.


NS You wrote that the Nicholas Brothers remind you of a line that a mother tells her daughter, that she needs to be twice as good as the other kids. This sentiment crops up in NW and in Swing Time, too.

ZS When I meet black British kids of my generation, that’s what all their mothers said to them. But with the Nicholas Brothers, I was also thinking about talent, because the novel is about different relations of power: in friendships, in families, between countries.

One of the things power is based on is the feeling that someone has a natural right to a certain amount of things. If you’re born into a situation, what accrues to you because of that? If you’re born into an unfortunate situation, what do you deserve in replacement for that? Politics lies along those lines. But talent is interesting because people on both sides of the political divide tend to think of it as a natural bounty not to be interfered with. The Nicholas Brothers are so extraordinarily talented that it’s a kind of offence to our most democratic thoughts. Why do these boys dance like that? How is it possible to have those kinds of gifts in the world, and what should you get because of them?


NS Did the Nicholas Brothers get the recognition that their talent deserved?

ZS Well, it was complicated, because they would do these extraordinary routines, but the studio always ensured they weren’t integral to the plot, so that when the films went south of the Mason-Dixon line, you could just cut the offending scene. So that was their experience – a very painful one, I think. But they were extraordinary professionals and Astaire spoke so well of them.

When I was a kid, what preoccupied me even more than the movies themselves was the idea of what was going on behind the scenes, between these black actors and the directors, the producers, the other actors. Because even though someone like Fred Astaire was a supporter of these artists, he didn’t actually actively help them on set. There’s a moment in Easter Parade when a maid comes in with a pug in her arms, and that maid is Jeni LeGon. Astaire knew who she was and how talented a dancer she was and yet he allowed her to appear for 35 seconds in a movie, passing him a dog.


NS In Swing Time, the narrator goes on to work for a pop star who is busily incorporating African imagery and clothing into her routines. What’s your take on this idea of cultural appropriation?

ZS Aimee, the pop star, says something that I don’t disagree with, which is that art involves an act of love, and of imitation. I would maybe use the word “voyeurism”. I think of myself explicitly as a voyeur, somebody who wants to be inside other people’s lives. To write On Beauty, I wanted to know: what’s it like to be a middle-aged, white male academic? Or in The Autograph Man, what’s it like to be a young, Chinese-Jewish guy who collects autographs? I guess sometimes the reader thinks it’s not appropriation when I’m writing about an older, black American woman – but I’m not an older, black American woman. It’s all voy­eurism on my part. But the way it’s argued a lot of the time, on both sides, is so vulgar.

Also, I feel that the identity facts of your life are so profoundly contingent – where your parents happened to be on the day you were born – that I can only take identity ­seriously as an act of commitment and love. I don’t think it runs through your blood. It is a compulsion. You have chosen to become, for example, British, even if you were born British and your great-grandfather was British. Being British is a kind of engagement; you have to commit to the idea of a culture.


NS In terms of identity, the narrator defines herself by the light other people cast on her. She’s almost a negative space.

ZS I felt that I wanted an “I” who was like a void, partly from my own sensibility – I recognise myself as a person of some passivity – but also in response to the performance of a certain kind of persona, particularly among young people. My students have a very firm sense of their “I”, or say they do, and they take that “I” on to the various social platforms and into their lives. It’s a type of presentation. But the kind of person that I was thinking about is asking, “What did I do here, there and then? What does it mean?” She’s working out, “Who am I?” but it comes from action, not from a series of staged performances. I knew it would be a slightly unnerving experience, because we’ve got so used to opening a book or reading a blog or watching Instagram and being presented with this full technicolour person with all these qualities. I felt that maybe in my novel, I could try something else.


NS When asked about the target audience for their book, writers usually say that they don’t write for an audience, or they write for themselves. But you have said that Swing Time was written explicitly for black girls.

ZS That’s how I felt when I was writing it. I did have somebody I was trying to speak to, and that might be no different to writing the kind of book – as writers often say – that you might have hoped to read when you were young. I was aware of an explicit imagined reader. I can’t deny that was in my mind. These are not normal times, and I think even writers as domestic or comic as I generally am find themselves in a more political place than they would in peaceful times. Being in America the past few years, I felt I had a lot of things that I had to get on paper, to get off my chest.


NS One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the relationship between the two girls. Do you think there’s something particularly fraught and complex about female friendships?

ZS I feel that perhaps in the past – because so much was written by men, because the women were with the children – relations between women have been depicted with very simple concepts like envy, or the idea of the bitch fight. And now that women are writing so much more frequently and the men in their lives are helping with the children, I think you’re getting for the first time in a very long time a different depiction of intimate female relations.

One of the things that strike me is that the much-vaunted envy between women is also a kind of radical imagination, in that women are always in each other’s business; they can imagine each other’s lives with great intensity. When I was writing this book, I was with my daughter at a children’s party, parting from another girl who wanted to know every little thing about where we were going next. I compared that with my son, who, if he’s saying goodbye to a friend, is just like, “See ya!” and doesn’t even remember they exist until the next morning.

That ability of girls to project their imagination into somebody else’s life can have toxic elements, but also seems to me an extraordinary fictional instinct, and might explain the domination of women in the novel historically, when so many other art forms were practically blocked for them. The novel, to me, is a woman’s art. I don’t say men don’t have enormous achievements in it, of course, but it has a strong female element, exactly because of that projection, which can be called empathy, I suppose, but is also a deep curiosity and voyeurism.


NS We tend to associate male relationships with power struggles, but aren’t female friendships equally involved in exchanges of power and power games?

ZS Right. I think it can be sometimes invisible to men, because the form of the power game can be so inverted. There is a very funny Amy Schumer sketch of four women meeting in a park in New York and competitively downgrading themselves: “You look nice!” “No, I look like something pulled out of the trash.” On it goes until they explode. All women will recognise that, and it’s a compulsive English habit. I do it all the time. Someone says to me, “You look nice.” I say, “Oh, Topshop, 15 quid.” That habit maybe doesn’t look like power from the outside, but all women know exactly what they’re doing when they’re doing these things.


NS In your fiction, mother-daughter relationships seem equally fraught.

ZS Even though I know a lot of women have difficult relationships with their mothers, what’s amusing, and kind of moving, too, is the amnesia. When they have children, women cannot imagine the idea that maybe this lovely two-year-old will one day do ­anything to avoid calling you between Sunday and Sunday – they can’t conceive of it, even as they’re doing it to their own mothers. I guess I never had that illusion about motherhood. I always thought, “This is going to be terrible,” so anything that’s good is a kind of bonus. I was very surprised when my kids started saying the normal things that kids say, that they love you.

Then there are the sweet delusions of what you want and what the child wants. I can’t tell you how many times people in New York have said to me things like, “I’m going to go and get a massage, because if I’m happy, the child’s happy.” You want to believe that you want the same things at the same time, but exactly the opposite is true. The child wants everything, and it’s the mother’s decision how much she’s going to give. I find that battle kind of comic and sweet and interesting, and certainly having children has reanimated it in my fiction.


NS What was your involvement in the recent BBC television adaptation of NW?

ZS When they started, I was pregnant and I just couldn’t engage with it at all. So I just said, “Do whatever you like.” I saw it only two weeks ago on my laptop – very anxious, with my husband, Nick, late at night – and I was just so happy and amazed at that scriptwriter [Rachel Bennette] and all the things she cut so effectively. I’m not in the habit of being moved by my own material, but the power of it struck me, particularly the section with Felix. You see so many people stabbed, all the time, in movies and on TV, and you never really understand the weight of the life being lost – and the actor playing Felix managed to die.

I’m going to try to adapt Swing Time for TV, probably with Nick, because he’s much more of a plot guy. I’m excited. I love telly.
I don’t have original taste – I love all the usual suspects. I think Mad Men is stunning.
I felt like it was a dream life that I was in, and when it was gone I felt really depleted, like I couldn’t have that dream every night, with all those beautiful men and women in it.


NS You’ve long been associated with the idea of “multicultural London”, but what comes out strongly in your recent work is a sense of division. Do you feel more pessimistic about London as a mixed community?

ZS Particularly in America, I’ll be asked, “Are you a supporter of this thing multiculturalism, and now can you admit that it’s failed?” What’s being said is that the conditions of your childhood were a kind of experiment, and it turns out it hasn’t gone well, so we’re going to revoke that – it’s over now. I find it kind of unnerving, because millions of people around the world are still living with each other in mixed situations, and I also don’t accept the premise that a homogeneous society is by its nature more peaceful and more likely to succeed. The Romans, the Greeks, the Northern Irish, England for 400 years . . . There’s no reason to believe that. I never felt that a heterogeneous society was perfect. But I think there are promising things in my community, and I don’t accept the idea of an experiment shut down, finished: these are people’s lives.

But what certainly is the case, I feel, is that you cannot, on the left or on the right, assume that a historical situation will remain in perpetuity. If you value things in that ­society, you have to restate them, reimagine them, and the kind of housing crisis we have in London now makes various conditions I grew up in impossible. There will always be rich and poor but, as [Thomas] Piketty makes the case, the gap is so extraordinary now. To have allowed it to get to this almost feudal situation, I don’t see how it can’t create deep cracks within civilised life. The ­division in London is a financial one. It feels extreme and it has extreme consequences.


NS In 2008, you wrote an essay full of cautious hope that Obama’s mode of speaking might be the thing required to pull the country together. How do you feel looking back at that moment now?

ZS On the morning of this election, I heard a young black girl on the subway ­speaking very loudly about why she’d voted for Trump. One of her reasons – a kind of “Face­book fact” – was that Obama created fewer jobs than Bush, which I believe had been going round the right-wing sites. In some of the big car towns, Obama saved so many jobs – but it’s hard to sell the counterfactual idea that there would be 800,000 fewer jobs here had this not happened.

But I think another counterfactual will be in his favour soon, and that is all the ways in which Obama is calm. Recently in New York, we had a small terrorist attack in Chelsea. Try to imagine Donald’s response to that. And so I think that over the next four years, all the ways in which Obama has not done many things that would have led us into terrible situations will become very clear, very quickly. It’s a painful way to secure your legacy, but that’s the way I see it.


NS As a New Yorker, what has your experience been over the past few weeks?

ZS I left the morning after it happened, because I had to go to Europe. When we turned up at my son’s daycare, the teachers were crying. My friend told me that the pizza delivery guy came that evening and burst into tears at the door. It was traumatic.

My gut feeling is that the job of American journalists and writers is going to be to somehow defy the normalisation of what’s happening. I think there are positive signs. It blows my mind that a man who is meant to be preparing to be leader of the free world watched Saturday Night Live [in which Alec Baldwin played Trump] and tweeted three times about it. So, in one sense, it’s a great opportunity for all of us artists, comedians, writers, because he’s so easily wound up! It gives the press an opportunity to be a real fourth estate and do something significant. Which could perhaps lead to impeachment. It’s promising, from our point of view.

“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.


This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage