Rape and War

Sue Lees (1994)


Rape and war have much in common. Both involve the fight for domination - in rape of a woman, and in war of an 'enemy'. If successful both involve the humiliation of the object of 'conquest'. The military boast about such conquests as adolescent boys boast about how many girls they have 'laid'. Boys 'mouth' or make up stories of sexual conquests, they boast about their prowess, their bravery: (Lees 1993) Boys with their toys, toys that can be lethal. A young unemployed British teenager on his way to become a mercenary in the war in Serbia, for pittance pay, when interviewed on TV said he wanted to find out what it was like to kill as many people as the Yorkshire Ripper, only legitimately. Films and videos encourage this macho form of masculinity. The language of sex reflects the language of war. We draw analogies between the conquering of land and of women, of the rape of women and of the countryside.

War is an important mechanism for enhancing masculinity. Miriam Miedzian (1992) in her recent book draws out the links between patriotism, manhood and war and argues that it is the tough masculine mystique, which represents the real threat to national security rather than the tendency to 'wimpishness' or weakness. She outlines how men who resisted the Vietnam war were ridiculed and likened to women in such terms as 'hell, he has to squat to piss'. The terms in which the American decision to go to war with Iraq were, she argues, blatantly sexual. The press discussed President Bush's need to prove his manhood in going to war with Iraq where according to a Washington correspondent for Newsweek, Bush's tough talk about Saddam Hussein was referred to as getting 'his ass kicked'. It was reported that ' some pundits have wondered if the President is still fighting the wimp factor'. The culture of violence influences national security decisions and makes the public accept war and conditions men to sacrifice themselves 'heroically' and unnecessarily.

In extolling masculinity, femininity and women need to be suppressed. Women's 'softness' and empathy was unsuited to the 'toughness' required for combat. The Nazi party passed a resolution in 1921 to refuse women any leadership positions to the party and governing committee. Only men possessed the required 'strength of hardness' . Concern with morality or human life was considered to be 'soft'.

Rape in war occurs most frequently when victorious armies march through conquered territories. It is one of the 'spoils' of war. Women who are raped also have their reputations 'spoiled'. Men who had raped and killed women in the Vietnam war were called 'double veterans' . Soldiers abused women's bodies as a way of humiliating the enemy and dealing with their own frustrations.

Underlying the Contagious Diseases Acts was belief that women must serve men and male institutions not just by providing cheap or unpaid labour but by providing 'clean sex'. Only if women were sexually healthy could men's presumably uncontrollable sexual drives be allowed full rein without society's male institutions being jeopardised.

Cythia Enloe outlines the horror of rape atrocities, where young pubescent girls were ruthlessly gang raped at gunpoint and considers why this is so common in war. She attributes it to the exclusiveness of all male communities where men are expected to conform to standards of male behaviour twenty four hours a day, where the world outside is viewed as chaotic and in need of control . (Enloe: 1988:35) The idea of the military family encourages men to see the rest of world as chaotic, fearsome and needing to be controlled or conquered.

More recently reports of forcible impregnation of thousands of women, mostly Muslims by Serbian soldiers as a form of ethnic cleansing aroused outrage in the West . A European Commission report estimated that 20,000 women had been victims of 'organised rape' in Bosnia while Muslim and Croat sources claim the incidence is far higher. The only way to understand the mass scale of such atrocities is as a reflection of sexual inequality and misogyny. Men have licence to rape when they have the licence to kill. Angela Davis described how gang rape was a weapon of the Klu Klux Klan after the American civil war. (Davis 176)

Cynthia Enloe (1988) has traced links between militarism, sexuality and military policy. She concluded that although military officials deny that an official policy in regard to prostitution exists, this is simply not true. She argues that each time the military establishment reasserts its 'masculine' identity, it does so by insinuating that women are essentially whores. Prostitute becomes the paradigm for the marginalised yet militarised woman, the camp follower. Military attitudes are fraught with contradictions. The idea that men's sexual appetites must be given an outlet for them to be real men. conflicts with the fear that sexual relationships could lead to a dilution of men's loyalty to the military and that their vigour might be drained. Most armies built on patriarchal bonding between men as men. The link between gang rape, prostitution and war is only beginning to be understood. The Japanese military government in the 1930's and 1940's used prostitution of Korean women as an integral tool of military expansionism. Tens of thousands of women were forced to work in a vast network of government run brothels to provide sex for the Japanese soldiers. ( See Vickers 1993, Enloe 1988)

In every area Japanese conquered during World War 11 prostitution was restored. In fact in 1941, the Japanese authorities actually conscripted Korean women into a corps of 'entertainers' to 'comfort' the Japanese troops in Manchuria. With the beginning of the Pacific War, form 50,000 to 70,000 Korean girls and women were drafted and sent to the front to 'entertain' the Japanese troops.

During the Gulf war, prostitutes were transported to the desert to service the troops where they queued up in line. If such practices are institutionalised, where women are treated as commodities for the servicing of male sexual needs, it is hardly surprising that gang rape occurs. Prostitutes are supposed to enhance soldiers morale by fulfilling their presumed sexual needs. Aids is changing the militarised policies of bases. Analogies between the Contagious Diseases Acts of the late nineteenth century designed to protect the military from syphilis and other forms of VD.

The language of war is laced with sexual imagery. Carol Cohn (1987) described how when working for the American nuclear establishment, she became aware that the scientists talked in a technical language which was loaded with sexist meaning. It was impossible, she writes, not to notice the ubiquitous use weight of gender, both in social relations and in the language of war and militarism, which reflects and shapes the nature of American nuclear strategic projects. By the elaborate use of abstraction and euphemism, the appalling reality of war is forgotten. The talk is of 'clean bombs' and 'clean language', countervailing attacks rather than incinerating cities, collateral damage rather than human death. The air force does not target people, it targets factories and missile bases. American military dependence was explained as 'irresistible because you get more bang for your buck'. One lecturer solemnly announced that to disarm was to 'get rid of all your stuff'. Talk is about erector launches, soft lay downs deep penetration and 'releasing 70-80% of our mega-tonnage in one orgasmic whump' (according to a military adviser to the National Security Council). One professor spoke of India's explosion of the nuclear bomb as 'losing her virginity'. Initiation into the nuclear world involved being 'deflowered', losing one's innocence, knowing sin, all wrapped into one. New Zealand's refusal to allow nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered warships into its ports prompted similar reflections on virginity.

Joan Smith, in her analysis of the songs pilots of an American Air Force base for nuclear fighter bombers at an air base in Upper Heywood, found they reflected the links between their two main concerns, in sex and war. She suggested their magazine's advertisements for new weapons rivalled Playboy as a catalogue of men's sexual anxieties and fantasies. The Russians were referred to as 'those fuckers' who would be 'assholed' , male rape being the final humiliation. Two verses of one of the songs are particularly relevant

Nearing the target, our nerves they are STEADY

Switches are thrown and we got us a READY

Bay doors are open, the jobs(sic) almost done

Killing those Commies, we're having some fun.

When the shit fills up your flight suit and you're feeling had,

just simply remember that big mushroom cloud, and then you won't feel SO BAD,

As Joan Smith points out, being 'ready' can, of course, equally apply to preparedness for war and for sex and the 'big mushroom cloud' for the after effects of detonation or as a metaphor for orgasm. Woman's bodies are described in terms of overwhelming contempt and disgust, where the real enemy appears to be women, or 'not real' men. If warfare is an extreme means of gaining and enhancing masculinity, then everything associated with femininity is to be denigrated. Disgust with the female body is a way of distancing oneself from femininity, and repressing one's desires.

To return to the explanation of gang rape, it does appear that it is a normal inevitable part of warfare rather than a rare pathological event. A Vietnam veteran in 1971 told a conference on war crimes how he saw seven friends from his company all 'basically nice people' rape a young Vietnamese girl. 'I just couldn't figure out what was going on to make people like this do it. It was just part of the everyday routine'. An American soldier explained how in Vietnam 'Let's face it. Nature is nature. There are women available. Those women are of another culture, another colour, another society. You don't want a prostitute. You've got an M-16. What do you need to pay for a lady for? You go down to the village and you take what you want. I saw guys who I believe had never had any kind of sex with a woman before in that kind of scene'. A Croatian researcher Slavenka Drakulic interviewed a woman gang raped by four men in Bosnia in 1993 and asked 'Were they drunk? Did they look abnormal? How did they look'? She said 'No'. 'No' . They were perfectly normal men if you were to meet them in the street you wouldn't say they were rapists'.

A particularly distasteful development outlined by Enloe (1988) is the use of rape as a tool in counter insurgency strategy used to protect third world governments from poor and landless peasants. It is designed to allow the local regime to carry out counter insurgency operations without depending on foreign military. It relies on irregular militarised vigilantes and according to third world feminists is not merely one more offence in a litany of atrocities, but

Rape is being used as a tool of this kind of warfare. As part of village 'sweeps' or as a systematic part of torture while under arrest, rape may be integral to the very strategy of sustaining the existing social order in the face of women's growing 'subverseness' . (Enloe. 1988: xxxiii)

This view suggests that a crucial and integral part of any military strategy is gender. The Amnesty (1991) report on Rape and Sexual Abuse not only documents the rape of dozens of women in the emergency zones in Peru by members of the security forces, in India by the Border Security Forces, in Indonesia by police officers, and in the Philippines, but laments the failure of governments to recognise rape and sexual abuse by government agents as serious human rights violations. Instead, when governments use military force to suppress armed insurgency movements, troops are often given extensive powers and not held accountable to civilian legal authorities. Women who are political activists, community organisers, or human rights workers have been particularly targeted. The report states that soldiers and police use rape as a way of humiliating such women and punishing them for their political and social independence. Often sexual abuse, stripping women naked and physically and verbally abusing them is used as a method of interrogation. Rose Ann Maguire was arrested in July 1991 in Northern Ireland and held for five days in Castlereagh interrogations centre. she was reportedly sexually harassed, physically abused and threatened with death. She said that on one occasion, a detective slapped her, pulled her by the hair, fondled her breasts and put his hand between her legs. 'they were just trying to degrade you all the time'. she said. she was released without charge. At least three other women interrogated at Castlereagh in 1991 reported incidents of sexual harassment.

The report concludes that governments fail to investigate or prosecute such offences :

'bear full responsibility for the persistence of widespread rape and sexual abuse in custody. .. Many governments clearly regard rape and sexual assault as less serious offences than other human rights violations. this is a particularly frightening prospect when the perpetrators of these rapes are those same policeman and military personnel charged with the protection of the public'

It is a mistake to assume that the link between the construction of masculinity and militarism implies that women have not actively supported militaristic values and have not taken a crucial role in supporting and upholding imperialism or other systems of domination. Such a view as bel hooks argues implies that men and women are biologically different in some fixed and absolute way. Such views make it appear that all women are against war, that men are the enemy. (hooks 1989: 94) Feminist need to emphasise that the power to choose to be for or against militarism is crucial for men and women.

So why do men gang rape in war? One reason often put forward is that their superiors force them to do so at gun point. Brownmiller in her book 'Against Our Will' refutes this and argues 'My point has always been that you don't need orchestration, or commands from on high when you have a young soldier with a gun. You don't need any order to rape. The penis can be used as a weapon, in Warfare it becomes another weapon'. Rape both demoralises and humiliates the enemy, defiles his property and deters him from propagating his own people through the bodies of violated females and hence assists in crushing a people.(Bennett 1993) In peacetime women are raped because they are objectified, in wartime they are doubly objectified, as women and as the enemy.