When I speak at conventions for veterans about sexual assault in the military, I am often faced with this conflict. Some survivors thank me for exposing the problem. Others speak out in furious defense of the very platoons and culture that victimized them. Some veterans scream that I am anti-military. Others fight among themselves over whether journalists like me are helping or hurting women, or whether journalists even have a right, as outsiders, to write about the military at all—a reflection of the institution’s insularity. Some simply turn inwards, so torn between being a whistleblower and a proud soldier that they can’t say anything at all.

Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the makers of The Invisible War, say they faced a similar dilemma. The veterans in their documentary, all of whom were brutally raped by comrades while serving, only agreed to participate on the condition that the film not come across as anti-military. In short, they wanted to expose the way they had been victimized by military culture without being seen as victims. They wanted to be critical of the military without being seen as anti-military.

How can journalists navigate these dilemmas?

Dick and Ziering tried to do it by showing how proud their veteran sources were of their service before they were attacked, although some viewers will probably come away with a highly negative view of the military nonetheless. My approach has been to try to persuade my sources that, far from being weak when they speak out about their assaults, they are being strong, for it takes enormous courage to defy the military’s self-protective culture. I explain that criticizing an institution is not turning against it, only trying to improve it. I even say that it is our democratic duty to keep an eye on our institutions and root out corruption. And I try to use the word “survivor” instead of “victim.”

Yet my efforts often seem to fall on deaf ears. The word victim looms too large.
So, we journalists are left with a dilemma: How are we to explore the exploitation and abuse of human beings without calling anyone a victim? Is this even possible? Can we reclaim the word—take the shame out of it and give it dignity? Do we need a new word? Or must we simply be ready to ignore the wish of survivors to be seen as non-victims for the greater good of exposing wrongdoing?

How, in other words, do we take victimhood out of being a victim?


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Helen Benedict teaches journalism at Columbia, and is the author of two books about women at war: The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, and the novel, Sand Queen. Her writing can be found here.