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The Illuminator: Helen Benedict and the Journalistic Investigation That Inspired The Invisible War

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The 2012 film The Invisible War -- a nominee for best documentary feature at this year's Academy Awards -- has received wide acclaim. But where did the filmmakers get the idea to investigate military-based sexual violence? Recently, I reached out to Helen Benedict, author of a groundbreaking 2007 article for Salon about women soldiers who were fighting for their country in Iraq while dealing with the fear of being raped -- an article that evolved into an illuminating 2009 book-length exposé on the same subject, The Lonely Soldier. Though she'd previously authored a pioneering study of how the American press covers sexual violence, even she was surprised by how much soldier-on-soldier sexual violence was occurring within the ranks of the American military, and how little was being done to stop it. I asked Benedict to talk to me about the genesis of her interest in sexual violence within the military, the relationship between her book and the film, and her views about the prospects for change in the U.S. military.

Military-based sexual violence is in the news these days, thanks in large part to your book The Lonely Soldier and the Academy Award nominated film The Invisible War. Given all that exposure, what might people still be surprised to learn about violence against women within the ranks of the American military?

I think people are still actually bowled over by the amount of it. The statistic of nearly 1 in 3 [Benedict estimates that roughly 30% of women serving in the Iraq War have endured rape or sexual assault by their fellow soldiers] is just mind-boggling, especially given that this isn't over a lifetime. This is over just a few years when the person is serving. But then I think also just the Kafkaesque nightmare, as shown in the film -- that statistic about how 33% of the commanders that you had to report to were friends of the rapists, and 25% of them were the rapists.

Was the film in some ways a vindication of your work?

When the film came out, then suddenly everybody believed [what I was saying] because for some reason [laughs], people believe movies more than they believe books. You know the movie just hits them, and then I was no longer being called an exaggerator and a liar, and the conversation moved on to, wow, this really is terrible, what can we do about it? Which is real progress.

As someone who has a long view of these issues, who wrote "Virgin or Vamp," the influential 1992 study of the way the press covers sexual violence, can you talk about how cultural attitudes about violence against women have shifted?

Oh, dear, I'm going to get depressed now. I just don't see progress. I think the biggest leaps started with the women's movement of the sixties, when there were the first rape speak-outs and it became un-taboo to talk about it. So journalists could finally write about it as a problem. Then it still took a long time for people to take it seriously and for laws to be enacted. But the way I see it, it's kind of two steps forward, one and a half steps back. Ever since 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of conservatism in this country, feminist causes have been sliding backward. You know, a lot of women don't even want to use the word feminist anymore.

So the assault on feminism -- which has become a dirty word in many circles -- has in some ways been an assault on our fight to end violence against women?

It's hard to fight for the rights of women who have been victims of violence when you've got this kind of backlash. The defeat of the ERA was hugely disappointing. [Then] the struggle to get the Violence Against Women Act through a second time -- to have to fight so hard to get something that should just be on everybody's "well, of course" list! I'm glad to see younger people taking up the issue, in the current of having to relearn and reteach it, but, boy, I wish we'd moved on.

What's the role of advocacy in journalism? What should the balance between the two be?

When you're an advocacy journalist, you're only representing the point of view you agree with. When you're doing an exposé, you look at all points of view and you think and try and find out what's wrong and why, but you've got to be balanced: you interview those who don't agree with you and have all different opinions, and that's what I am. I'm definitely not an advocacy journalist -- that's the line.

Much of the material from your recent novel Sand Queen (2011) is drawn from research you did for The Lonely Soldier. How do you understand the relation of real-world research to fiction?

Well, I find the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction a bit like the difference between dreaming and doing a puzzle -- they're wildly different. Non-fiction is like working on a really complicated three-dimensional puzzle: you've got all the pieces, it's just a matter of finding the right way to put them. With fiction, it's more like I just start and the writing itself takes me to where I'll go -- it's like controlled dreaming.

Usually when I write novels I do very little research beforehand, I do most of it later, in a fact-checking kind of way because I don't want the reality to confine my imagination. But with Sand Queen, I felt that there was so much deep inside that the soldiers were experiencing that they could barely describe to me. And I came to feel that it was in that silence that the real story lay.

In The Lonely Soldier you suggest that there's a strong correlation between the waging of war and sexual violence throughout history. Can you expound on that?

Sure, it goes back to the earliest accounts of battle, pre-Biblical, if you go to the Greeks and even earlier -- the idea of women as being loot, or "booty," that's where the word came from. The idea that conquering soldiers are entitled to help themselves to women's bodies is as ancient as the idea of the soldier itself. So that is very deep within every military in the world.

[It's in] the sense of entitlement that a lot of male soldiers have over women's bodies. They see women as sexual prey even if they're supposed to be their sister soldiers. It's in the language that drill instructors use when they scream at their recruits to pare their civilian resistance down and build up the soldier, as they put it, by insulting and infuriating them all the time. And the words they use to do that are very often words for women, some of them just as simple as "girls" or "ladies," and some of them, you know, vulgar.

So, as we've moved ostensibly toward democratizing the army and increasing women's status within the military over the past couple of decades, what kind of measures work to prevent the types of violence that you've helped uncover?

We're never going to get rid of all sexual assault in the military any more than we can get rid of it in civilian life. As long as it's out here, it's going to be in there. But the military is a controlled environment and your behavior is watched and dictated, which is not true in civilian life. Some of the things that are important to do: to have proper screenings and not take anybody in the military who has any record of violence against women, domestic abuse or sexual violence; to ban sexist, misogynistic rhymes and words in training; and to change the attitude of those in immediate command rather than just the commanders at the top. And there should be a system of rewards for cleaning the closet where right now people are covering it up because they're afraid it will make them look bad.

The husband of Kori Cioca, one of the survivors featured in The Invisible War, says, "I would be terrified if my daughter wanted to join the military." How well does that sentiment resonate with your own conclusions?

Well, I wish we had no wars so we didn't need a military. But I do think joining the military is a job opportunity that's often the only job opportunity for a lot of people, and women should have equal access to it and they should have equal treatment within it. It's a terrible violation of their human rights to not be able to have that freedom to pursue that career, so I don't want to say to women, "You shouldn't join the military, period."

What would you say to them?

I want to say them: Go in with open eyes, know what it's like, know how dangerous it is, think about what you will do and how you will protect yourself and how you might help to change it, and think about all of that before you enlist. And maybe I would just say, as an addendum: You may not want to join the military as it is now; perhaps one day it will be a more friendly workplace for women or for you.

R. Clifton Spargo, author of the new novel Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, created and regularly teaches a testimonial writing workshop on gender-based violence for The Voices and Faces Project.