Duty, Honor, Rape: Sexual Assault Against Women During War
by Kevin Gerard Neill, MPH
War has attended the development of humankind for thousands of years. As a subject, it is studied in school. As an event, it is-for those not directly involved-a story in the newspaper, images on television, or pictures on a web page. As an aspect of culture, wars have generated literature, art and scientific discovery. Its primary contribution to our species, however, has been death and destruction. Accordingly, war is regarded by most thinking people as an evil thing, a terrible activity we inflict upon ourselves. Even the occurrence of what could be construed a "just" war (as particularly the victors generally regard World War II) denotes a breakdown of society. At the same time, it is undeniably true that wars and other armed conflicts have furnished at least some level of momentary liberation for women in certain parts of the world. Whether the costs involved in war are justified when set against the price of noninvolvement, each conflict must be examined within its own cultural and historical context: some wars quite plainly need to be fought.
Nevertheless, when wars erupt, the rules we lived by before the fight,
no longer apply. The purposeful ending of lives and the devastation
of property become widely accepted, either reluctantly or wholeheartedly.
We must defeat the enemy, we say. We must kill. We must win. Therefore,
whatever dark side there is to being human that allows us to accomplish
those goals is permitted to see the light of day. We may regret an
act committed in war, but it is likely to be justified in some way,
as the savagery of the warrior is deemed necessary to fulfill our
goal of victory. Emotions usually repressed are encouraged and violence
is embraced as a needed activity. In our modern times, in fact, a
soldier can be legally court-martialed for not killing.
In contrast to dutifully killing the enemy, a soldier is not supposed
to rape a woman, at least in theory. But rapes occur in war. They
always have, and often in settings and upon a scale that is difficult
to comprehend. Accordingly, rape in times of war has a direct effect
upon the society where the conflict takes place. More specifically,
it affects women, and this violence against them can have the added,
profoundly negative effect of eroding their particular social and
environmental conditions. As difficult and emotional this issue may
be, though, rape in war is in direct correlation to the study of women,
their health and development. In locales where war has raged or is
raging still, sexual violence against women is an individual and collective
wound like no other.
An Ideology of Power
Never have I heard or read of such brutality. Rape! Rape! Rape! We
estimate at least 1,000 cases a night, and many by day. In case of
resistance....there is a bayonet stab or a bullet. We could write
up hundreds of cases a day.
Rape possesses a squalid history of its own, well outside the theater
of war. Whatever the historical origins of the act, the evolution
of human anatomy dictates that forced intercourse by male aggression
is possible. And while rape is not limited to a male's assault against
a female, it does represent a virtually universal symbol of terror
for the entire female gender. Viewed thusly, it is difficult to convincingly
argue that the rape of a woman by a man does not embody a transhistorical
and transcultural act of violent hostility.
What constitutes the deed of raping a woman beyond its physical feasibility?
As a single statement, the historian Brownmiller has been expressed
thusly: If a woman chooses not to have intercourse with a specific
man and the man chooses to proceed against her will, that is a criminal
act of rape. Forced intercourse was rape in ancient Babylon as much
as it is in modern-day Baghdad-or Boston, Bangkok and Berlin. But
while there have been penalties for rape as far back as that same
Babylon (death by drowning) the crime was then regarded more as the
lowering of a bride-price by damaging the goods or for shaming a family
than for the trauma inflicted upon a woman. And while what has been
called the soiling of a woman's worth by rape is still to be found
in certain societies today, it should be emphasized that much of the
revulsion felt toward the act has rightly shifted to sympathizing
with the female victim.
Should one accept the view that rape can be seen in nearly any culture
and at any time of history, it can then be debated that a patriarchal
ideology of rape has subsequently developed, allowing the act to evolve
into a principal weapon of power over women. This ideology particularly
manifests itself during times of war, instilling rape as being a man's
conquest over a woman's body, a triumph of physical strength and manhood.
Taken further, this ideology has the effect of becoming a conscious
process of intimidation in which men as a gender group keep women
as a whole in a perpetual state of fear. ¹
The formation of this ideology of rape in wartime is traceable in
part through the writings of the historian Gerda Lerner. In The Origins
of Patriarchy (1986), Lerner establishes the idea that militarism
and sexual aggressiveness against women extends as far back as the
earliest formation of expansionist or agricultural societies. In such
societies, women were readily viewed as vital resources for the production
of both food and children. Specifically, Lerner relates that this
reproductive capability prompted tribes to recognize the value of
acquiring more women from opposing groups to stabilize and potentially
increase their population. To accomplish this acquisition, there took
place the creation of a male warrior class. An additional consequence
to this militarization and "theft" of women was that the
conquered women were protected by the warriors or by the warriors'
tribe. Thus, women came to be viewed as true property, and a perceived
right of the conquering male included sexual subjugation. ²
The soldier's quote above-including all others used-describe varying
experiences and attitudes regarding rape in wars of the twentieth
century. However, there are written accounts of the rape of women
during conflicts dating as far back as ancient Greece. Why have these
atrocities occurred beyond the motivations of our earliest ancestors?
Part of the answer may be drawn-however obscene the logic-from the
fact that rape was one of the few opportunities open to the lowly
soldier in previous times, who was rarely paid by his leaders. Such
a reality, a "permission" to rape, defies any criminality
attached to the act. Indeed, it points to a different standard of
civilization being applied as our normal taboos are squelched whenever
war is accepted and killing and destruction become commonplace. In
this sort of world, the line between duty and cruelty is obscured,
for in a wartime environment full of danger, fear and the thrill of
adrenaline, the possession of women becomes the act of a conqueror.
A woman-according to Lerner-represented a tangible reward.
Rape in World War II (WWII) played a similar role, but here, as in
the highly-publicized, tentatively-ended wars in the former Yugoslavia,
rape can also more clearly be seen as a sort of ethnic pollution,
or as described by Brownmiller: a willful act of devastation and humiliation
of "inferior peoples". Adherents of National Socialism (Nazism)
looked upon rape as a method to further the establishment of their
own, master race by damaging the ethnic purity of, say, Poles and
the French. For the ordinary, apolitical Wehrmacht soldier, however,
rape was more likely a seizure of the same war spoils already mentioned:
plunder in the form of a woman. An identical assertion could be made
concerning the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Asian women, mostly Korean,
pressed into service by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII to
become sexual slaves in army brothels. ³
Nanking (now called Nanjing), China established another dark milestone
during WWII as an example of the scale that the sexual abuse against
women in wartime can take. The Rape of Nanking-employing the word
rape to primarily describe the invasion of a geographic place-recounts
the assault of that city by the Japanese in 1937. However, the metaphor
obscures tales of sexual atrocities. Witnesses related stories of
girls carried off by gangs of soldiers to be "horribly raped
and abused". Other practices that made the exploitation more
total saw abducted women made to do laundry for military units by
day and submit sexually to soldiers at night. Selected women were
forced to perform sex shows, and as another, common ordeal, fathers
were commanded to rape their own daughters. As a final coup de grace
to rape, uncounted Chinese women were physically mutilated or beheaded.
It is estimated that 20,000 women were raped during just the first
month of Nanjing's occupation.
Another modern tale of rape in wartime was the mass rape of Bengali
women by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 war in Bangladesh. Bengal,
a state of 75 million people at the time and officially called East
Pakistan, declared itself independent Bangladesh in 1971. Bangladesh
subsequently fought West Pakistan in a rebellion lasting nine months,
stopping only when Indian troops came to the support of the Bengalis.
When it ended, an estimated three million people were dead and ten
million more had become refugees in neighboring India. As to how many
women were raped, that number is put between 200,000 and 400,000.
Of these, roughly eighty percent were Bengali Moslems, while the rest
were Hindus and Christians. The fact that the Pakistani soldiers were
also Moslem did not prevent the rapes from taking place. Despite a
shared religion, the tall, lighter-skinned Punjabi Pakistanis are
racially different from the darker, smaller Bengalis. This racial
difference added to the shame and suffering of Bengali women who became
pregnant after being raped, for it was made known in Bangladesh after
the war that the Bengali women and the children they bore with Punjabi
features would never be accepted back into Bengali culture. This was
the attitude of numerous fathers, husbands, prospective bridegrooms
and others, despite efforts by the government to have raped women
declared national heroines as a way of reintegrating them into society.
However, with most women living a life of purdah, or strictly-enforced,
veiled isolation, measures like these had little success if a Bengali
man believed such women were contaminated. The search for a solution
by desperate women led to incidents of infanticide and suicide. Abortions
were also widespread, writes Brownmiller, and the women who effectuated
the termination of their pregnancy are numbered in the thousands.
When it comes to the American soldier, there is no immunity from
guilt. Rape has been a steady activity of the American military, and
perhaps nowhere else could it be better examined than through the
American experience in Vietnam.
For twenty years, the American armed forces were involved in Vietnam,
first covertly and then openly. The moral dilemma posed by war there
as the years passed, the purposeful conscription of urban poor into
the ranks, the changing American cultural landscape-these were some
of the things that contributed to the sexual exploitation and abuse
of Asian women by the American military. The charge that U.S. servicemen
committed rape is unquestionable. From the individual rape of barroom
girls in Saigon to the mass rape and murder of dozens of civilian
women in the village of My Lai, the Criminal Investigative Division
of the United States Army is rife with documentation concerning abuses
by Americans. Beyond the brutality of rape, however, was the American
military's involvement in the commercial sex business. In order to
maintain soldiers' morale in fighting an unpopular war, the Pentagon
knowingly allowed the formation of brothels on base camps throughout
Vietnam. Military authorities also organized thinly veiled "sex
tours" for Army troops, sailors, airmen and Marines on leave
in Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan and other locales. The camp brothel
or otherwise providing women to soldiers hardly began in this war,
but Brownmiller wrote that it merits special note here for the official
commitment to the idea that a soldier needs and deserves a woman for
sexual gratification to get him to continue fighting and killing.
Further Implications of Rape in Wartime
I then told him that, in spite of my most diligent efforts, there
would unquestionably be some raping, and that I should like to have
the details as early as possible so that the offenders could be properly
....flying over a rice paddy, Ridenhour and his pilot sighted a body
in the field below. The pilot propelled their (helicopter) downward
for a closer look. "It was a woman," Ridenhour later said
with emotion. "She was spread-eagled, as if on display. She had
an 11th Brigade patch between her legs-as if it were some type of
display, some badge of honor."
Like any rifle or shell, rape in war assumes the level of being a
weapon. It serves a specific military purpose. Putting aside for a
moment the unforgivable defiling of an individual woman, rape in war
achieves the goal of demoralizing and intimidating the side of the
victim. It wounds identity and pride. And, in a traditional society,
rape will likely be internalized by the victim, her family and, in
the end, by the community in which she lives. In this manner, raping
the women of a defeated people or nation becomes part of the effort
to destroy them.
Beyond the use of rape as a weapon of war, a larger question would
be to ask how each rape exploits women, for asking it sets in motion
an examination of the culture of abuse. When men are set apart from
women and issued a rifle, as in war, are women abused sexually because
they are representatives of the enemy, or-questions Brownmiller-because
women are specifically women and therefore the enemy? As such, sexual
aggression becomes an instrument of contempt against women and not
necessarily a part of the activity of war.
To pose this concept offers another view over how and why masculinity
is militarized, as rape in war can also be seen as one of the worst
manifestations of patriarchy. As a process perpetuating male dominance,
then, it works extremely well. Left unanswered is the ultimate motive
of this sort of rape, plus the source of the motive. Is rape in war
the result of a conscious command policy of intimidation? Is the act
an example of men out of control or of men under control? If the latter
is the case, then the next question is to identify the target of this
intimidation. Would the targets be the women themselves, or-according
to Brownmiller-the victims' husbands, sons and fathers?
Of course, rape in war could work toward both ends, for the act not
only harms women, it disgraces the men who were unable to protect
them-at least in the view of the patriarchal rapist. Another target
of intimidation might be the soldier himself. Soldiering is considered
by many to be the ideal expression of manhood. To have leaders encourage
their male soldiers to rape women enables those same soldiers to socialize
themselves into a group brutality, allowing them to sever ties from
normal society so they can get on with the business of killing.
A Return to the Balkans: Rape and Its Aftermath
We have orders to rape the girls.
Significantly, while documentation exists accusing all sides of
having committed sexual atrocities, Muslim women appear to have been
the primary victims and the chief perpetrators were believed to be
Serbian soldiers. 7 Moreover, there exists compelling evidence that
the raping of women pursued a systematic plan of ethnic cleansing-the
process of evacuating or forcing out certain ethnic groups from geographic
areas-by instigating a form of ethnic pollution. To quote Mark Wheeler,
a lecturer on Balkan history at the University of London: "The
idea of nationality in the former Yugoslavia is based on descent,
and the greatest debasement is to pollute a person's descent."
How is it done, then? How is ethnic pollution achieved using the
bodies of women? In the Balkans, rape certainly appears to have been
used as a method of bringing shame and destruction to Muslim families.
Eyewitness accounts mention instances where women were detained in
what have been called "rape camps" and raped repeatedly
until they became pregnant. These women were released only when it
was too late for an abortion. As pointed out by Granjon and Deloche,
this forced them to bear children of mixed ethnicity, thereby acquiring
the aim of ethnic pollution.
How else did rape in this war affect women? Was it somehow unique?
Unlike most wars, where soldiers and the women they rape are strangers
because of geographic or social separation prior to war, abundant
testimonies of women raped in this series of conflicts revealed that
many women knew the men who raped them, either by name or personally.
This addition to the personal shock inherent in the act of rape itself
multiplies a woman's psychological burden, particularly along with
the accompanying experience of war. For example, if rape is heaped
onto a list of wartime trauma that might encompass the death of loved
ones, loss of home and community, untreated illness or war-related
injury, how severe and long-lasting will a woman's psychological problems
be? Sexual abuse mingled with the violence and deprivation experienced
amidst war would likely exacerbate the effects of what can already
occur after any rape: intense shock, a paralyzing fear of injury or
death, and a sense of loss of control over one's life. The anxiety
of living in a war-torn environment would also likely compound a woman's
longer-term problems associated with rape. These include persistent
fears, avoidance of situations that trigger memories of the rape,
feelings of shame, memory loss, inability to respond to life generally
and difficulty reestablishing intimate relationships. As for the physical
effect of rape, an unwanted pregnancy is only one dilemma, though
the complications for a victim will vary enormously depending upon
her age and whether any other bodily abuse, such as wounds, beating
or mutilation has also occurred. Contracting sexually transmitted
diseases, including the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) is also
In response to the widespread rapes and other sexual crimes in the
Balkans, the UN Security Council established, in 1993, an International
Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to seize and prosecute
individuals responsible for those actions. However, it wasn't until
July of 2000 that the ICTY upheld a ruling that established rape as
a war crime. In this case, the ICTY rejected the appeal of a Bosnian
Croat officer who was convicted in 1998 of standing by while a subordinate
tortured and raped a female prisoner. In a move called significant,
the conviction set two international legal precedents: The ICTY admitted
the testimony of the victim, and extended the meaning of sexual assault
to be more straightforwardly punishable as an act of torture.
While this ruling marks a turning point for women, it represents
only an incremental step toward enhancing their international legal
status. ¹ It is conceivable, however, that the conviction could lead
to more international attention given other forms of aggression against
women, like domestic violence and prostitution. Such moves will probably
be very slow in coming, though, for any action questions both the
established power of patriarchy and the concept of the family. The
"family" is currently regarded in international law as the
basic unit of the sovereign nation-state. Tampering with the family-its
structure and power-would conflict with governments' constant refusal
to accept the jurisdiction of the United Nations in related areas,
as it is considered a meddling in internal affairs. As for patriarchy,
nationalist men might conceivably resist a true elevation of women's
international legal status because it would disallow those same men
the opportunity to turn the wartime rape of "our women"
into a propaganda tool to justify the militarization of masculinity.
A change in international law would also deny those and other men
future opportunities to impose additional restrictions on women under
the guise of ensuring women's safety.
It the face of this relatively negative stance concerning women's
current overall status, it is nevertheless true that many important
strides have been made to improve the position of women, particularly
toward the end of the twentieth century. From the establishment of
the United Nations Decade for Women (1976-1985) to the Beijing Conference
on Women in 1995, there has been an increased focus on issues pertaining
to girls and women on a global scale. However, it seems far too many
proclamations, legal provisions, development program initiatives and
the like do not filter down as practical enlightenment or assistance
to untold females in scores of countries. For girls and women trapped
in conflicts in Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Lebanon, Chechnya, or any other
war zone, there will likely be no significant lessening of the danger
of being raped because of any court proceedings in The Hague.
Despite the urgency to do more to protect women who face the possibility
of being raped in war, the immediate needs of girls and women who
have already become victims remains, for they may have chronic medical
and psychological conditions as the legacy of their rape. However,
it is critical to address any treatment within the victim's cultural
context. What this means is that a far greater understanding is required
by those providing care to be aware of how a woman's cultural setting
allows her-or doesn't allow her-to emerge from the experience of rape.
It is almost impossible to imagine that rape in war will cease.
As long as organized killing continues, so too will the rape of innocent
girls and women. Obviously, then, a priority would be to labor toward
ending wars as they flare-a thought more easily expressed than accomplished.
An equal priority, though, should be given to making ourselves far
more aware of what rape in war actually means. Rape within this historic
arena is much more serious and evil than what Josef Stalin believed
when he described to a biographer the thousands of rapes committed
by Soviet troops in WWII as a "trifle".
1. Brownmiller S. Against our will: men, women and rape. Fawcett
Columbine-Ballantine Books. 1975: 472 pages.
1.The perspectives of the author evolved from several sources. As
an undergraduate student at the School for International Training
in Vermont, USA, I took courses in Women's Studies under a very challenging
professor, Dr. Nalini Visvanathan, PhD., MPH, who was instrumental
in raising my awareness of feminist theory. Also during this period,
I performed fieldwork at a refugee camp in Pula, Croatia (1994). This
camp (Kamenjak) held close to 1,000 refugees, mostly women and children,
from Sarajevo. From 1987 until 1991, I was a medic in the Regular
US Army-an interval that included close to two years in Egypt and
Israel/Palestine as a member of the support battalion for an eleven-
nation peacekeeping force. Prior to that assignment, I was attached
to the medical platoon of an Army infantry battalion. It was all these
experiences that illuminated many of my impressions about war and
rape, and also led to my graduate work in international public health
at the Boston University School of Public Health.
This page is maintained by the Web Management Team.
Send comments and suggestions to: email@example.com