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Unspeakable: Rape and War

13 minute read
Lance Morrow

RAPE AND KILLING ARE CHIEF AMONG THE VICIOUS PLEASURES, A MAN’S recreations on the dark side. Medieval kings reserved for themselves alone the right to do such things, in peacetime anyway. In war, the privileges were distributed to the lowliest foot soldier: every man a king.

Killing, of course, is what soldiers are trained to do. The disciplined destruction of the enemy is their military duty. Soldiers may be court- martialed for not killing.

Rape is a disreputable half-brother to that. No glory attends it. The story of rape in war is murky. Rape after battle has usually been regarded as an ugly side effect. The spoils of war, Homeric booty: kill the men and take the women as prizes. Does after-battle rape merely serve to illustrate the human tendency to take things too far once taboos have been breached, especially in the midst of much danger and adrenaline and anarchy? Everyone knows that atrocity has a life of its own, a quality of evil ecstasy.

No one can hear accounts from the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina without sensing that the conflict there has taken the matter of rape in war down into deeper, more sinister dimensions. It is not known how many rapes have been committed since the fighting began in the breakup of Yugoslavia. A European Community team of investigators calculates that 20,000 Muslim women and girls have been raped by Serbs. Other estimates run much higher. The Bosnian government claims that as many as 50,000 Muslim women have been raped. Serbs are undoubtedly committing most of the rapes at the moment; they have also seized the most land. But as Amnesty International reported last month, others in the conflict, Muslims and Croats, have also been guilty of widespread rape. The hideous moral ecology of the region has left no one innocent.

The fighting has opened a door upon horrors — the wanton siege of Sarajevo, the death camps and other atrocities of “ethnic cleansing” — suggesting that atavistic nationalisms, or tribalisms, may lie just beneath the civil veneers. The abuses of Bosnian women open a perspective upon wartime rape that is equally terrible. In Bosnia, rape, far from being a side effect of war, has become one of the indispensable instruments of war. The battleground is not only villages and countryside but also women’s bodies.

Amnesty International’s report Bosnia-Herzegovina: Rape and Sexual Abuse by Armed Forces, states “The available evidence indicates that in some cases the rape of women has been carried out in an organized or systematic way, with the deliberate detention of women for the purpose of rape and sexual abuse.” Rather than being the random indiscipline of soldiers, many of the rapes in Bosnia have almost certainly been committed as a matter of deliberate policy.

And as a weapon of war, rape works — sometimes even better than killing does. Killing may make martyrs, and thus inspirit and strengthen the morale and solidarity of the victims. Rape, on the other hand, not only defiles and shatters the individual woman but, especially in traditional societies, also administers a grave, long-lasting wound to morale and identity. Rape penetrates the pride and cohesion of a people and corrodes its future. When a woman is raped in war, she and her family and ultimately her community internalize the assault upon their identity. Rape in war is only sometimes an act of simple lust or sadism.

The Serbs not only vehemently deny encouraging mass rape but also deny that such rapes have even occurred. Croats and Muslims have also denied such practices. The Balkans reverberate to this counterpoint of denial, a victim symphony of outraged innocence. Radovan Karadzic, who is a poet and a psychiatrist as well as the ruthless commander-in-chief of the Bosnian Serbs, tries a reverse approach. He says soldiers on all sides are committing rape. He sounds the note of bogus fatalism that is also a kind of blessing of rape: “It is tragic. But these dreadful things happen in all wars.”

The first indications began to emerge last summer, when Muslim and Croat victims described mass rapes by Serbs to the International Red Cross and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The women — some escaped to Croatia, some still living in Bosnia, some in concentration camps — all told of being forcibly taken by Serb troops, often to temporary “camps” in inns, hotels, schools, town halls and even restaurants. There they would be raped by a procession of Serb soldiers, then either released or sent to one of the larger concentration camps in Bosnia. Other women have been repeatedly raped in their own homes by Serbs, and some were reportedly killed afterward. A number of pregnant victims ended up in Croatian hospitals as refugees, awaiting the birth of unwanted children. Some of the victims are said to be held by Serb soldiers until they give birth.

In the past few months, there have been reports of Muslim and Croat soldiers committing mass rape, but the cases have been less well documented. Says a senior E.C. official: “The Red Cross, the U.N. and we know that some mass rapes have been committed by non-Serbs. The information has come from similar sources: the victims.”

In December the E.C., at its summit meeting in Edinburgh, expressed its outrage at “these acts of unspeakable brutality.” So did the U.N. Security Council. The E.C. summit appointed a 12-member team, which found mass rape had been committed “in the context of expansionist strategy” — that is, ethnic cleansing. The investigators reported that “daughters are often raped in front of parents, mothers in front of children, and wives in front of husbands.” David Andrews, a member of the commission, who was at the time Ireland’s Foreign Minister, said it was clear that rape had “become an instrument, not a by-product, of war.”

How does rape work as a weapon of war?

In the Balkans ethnic purity is a primitively overriding value. Bosnian Muslims believe that the mass rapes are intended to break down their national, religious and cultural identity. In part, they assume, the Serb objective is to use rape and enforced pregnancy as a form of revenge and humiliation. Says Mark Wheeler, a lecturer on modern Balkan affairs at the University of London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies: “The idea of nationality in the former Yugoslavia is based on descent, and the greatest debasement is to pollute a person’s descent.”

Neatly done: mass rape achieves ethnic cleansing through ethnic pollution. Serbs do not care about the fate of the children of rape: they are not Serbs but of mixed blood, therefore debased. Mass rape contaminates the gene pool.

The Balkans have become a sort of Bermuda Triangle into which human decencies vanish without a trace. In the post-cold war era, it is unsettling to think that conscienceless tribal ferocity may catch on around the world. Rape, of course, has been an apparently inevitable part of war since men first threw rocks at each other — or anyway since Rome was founded upon the rape of the Sabines. Joseph Stalin expressed a prevailing (male victor’s) view of rape in war. When Yugoslav Milovan Djilas complained about the rapes that Russians had committed in Yugoslavia, Stalin replied, “Can’t you understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle?” In 1945, Soviet soldiers raped 2 million German women as a massive payback for everything the Nazis had done to Russia. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was a Soviet army captain in East Prussia in 1945, recorded: “All of us knew very well that if the girls were German, they could be raped and then shot. That was almost a combat distinction.”

Revenge, soaked in hatred and hormones, may explain some of the Soviet troops’ behavior. But it is not a good all-purpose explanation. Revenge — which in the Nazi-Soviet context perversely takes on the color of almost a kind of brutal justice — does not explain Nanjing in 1937. The Chinese had not committed atrocities against the Japanese people when the Japanese marched into Nanjing and raped — and often murdered — tens of thousands of Chinese women. Nor can revenge entirely explain the behavior of Pakistani troops who in 1971 raped more than 250,000 Bengali women and girls in Bangladesh.

Achilles sulked in his tent because Agamemnon denied him his just plunder in war, the beauty Briseis. “Rape has always been endemic with armies,” says John A. Lynn, military-history professor at the University of Illinois. “There have been armies in which rape was treated as a disciplinary problem, and armies in which it was institutionalized. In most European armies in the first half of the 17th century, rapes by unpaid soldiers occurred in large numbers in front of officers and were not stopped because they were part of the quid pro quo of what you got for being a soldier.”

Once there were even elaborate rules about permissible rape in war. Lynn mentions an early European convention: if a besieged town surrendered in timely fashion, its women would be spared rape. If the town resisted, wholesale rape was justified. Says Lynn: “That kind of legitimized rape had a political reason — to intimidate other towns to surrender without resistance.”

Armies in all civilized countries receive intensive indoctrination on decent behavior and on what offenses, including rape, will result in court-martial. It is the job of officers to control their men. Elite units are the least likely to commit rape and other atrocities, although SS men in World War II proved the exception. Says the military historian John Keegan: “Elite units have a rather high opinion of themselves and consider atrocity to be beneath them.” A soldier who murders or rapes disgraces his comrades and damages esprit de corps.

But Bosnia shows how that logic can be turned upside down. There, “elite” units of Serbian irregulars such as the White Eagles have evidently made rape a gesture of group solidarity. A man who refuses to join the others in rape is regarded as a traitor to the unit, and to his Serbian blood. Sometimes, that impulse to bond with the male group becomes a kind of perverse inflaming energy inciting to rape. Lust is only a subsidiary drive.

And sometimes, young men in war may commit rape in order to please their elders, their officers, and win a sort of father-to-son approval. The rape is proof of commitment to the unit’s fierceness. A young man willing to do hideous things has subordinated his individual conscience in order to fuse with the uncompromising purposes of the group. A man seals his allegiance in atrocity.

It should be possible to draw a graph predicting the level of rape that would occur in a battle context according to the officers’ degrees of tolerance or disapproval. The greatest number of rapes would happen if 1) the soldiers were under direct orders to commit rape. Slightly fewer would take place if 2) there were fully articulated official approval of rape, as with the Soviets entering Germany in 1945. The levels would descend with 3) tacit $ official approval of rape, 4) official neutrality on the subject, 5) tacit official disapproval, 6) spoken official disapproval, 7) direct orders not to rape or 8) a written code of conduct prohibiting rape and mandating punishment for such behavior.

Even armies operating under conditions 7 and 8 may commit numerous rapes. Rapes increase geometrically if the soldiers feel that civilian women are implicated in the war against them. American soldiers in Viet Nam committed an unknowable number of rapes, including those attending the massacre at My Lai, in part when the units were incompetently or viciously led, but also in part because it was hard for the Americans to distinguish officially friendly Vietnamese civilians from the Viet Cong.

Dr. Richard Mollica is the director of the refugee-trauma program of the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Indochinese Psychiatry Clinic at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton, Massachusetts. He and his colleagues have worked with some 3,500 refugees, half of them Cambodians. The subjective meaning of rape in war, Mollica suggests, is created by the historical and cultural traditions that surround the deed. “Every society and subculture has a different way of dealing with rape,” he says. In some societies the taint of rape is indelible and toxic. In Indochina, as in many areas with traditional societies, rape means the loss of a woman’s sexual purity, the highest gift she can give her husband. The Cambodians have a folk saying: “A woman is cotton, a man is a diamond. If you throw cotton in the mud, it’s always soiled. But if you throw a diamond in the mud, it can be cleaned.”

On the other hand, some women from Nicaragua and other parts of Latin America were proud of being raped in war because their political beliefs told them that they had given their bodies to the revolution. Rape as sacrifice: the crime creates a living martyr.

In Bosnia the cotton-and-diamonds tradition, alas, applies, and the rapists know it. Part of the enduring disaster of rape is this: the husband often enough blames the woman who was raped as much as he blames the man who raped her. All the dynamics of rape are ingeniously destructive. It tears the social fabric apart. It profoundly degrades the women and disgraces — absolutely — the men who were unable to protect the women.

Rape is inherently unforgivable: no woman has ever forgiven the man who raped her. No man has ever forgiven the man who raped his wife or daughter or mother. There is little hope of reconciliation. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” Rape is also inherently unforgettable. No one who has been raped ever forgets, as long as she lives. No raped woman can look at men without fearing it will happen again. Rape lives on and on in the anger and grief and depression and adhesive shame that it creates in one evil burst of violence.

Rape in the Bosnian war is clearly a policy of scorched emotional earth with intent to achieve ethnic cleansing. The only possible benefit one can see emerging from the rapes might be a grace of widened perception, a clearer moral focus on the idea that rape is really a form of warfare, like, say, germ warfare, and that sometime in the future, it will become unthinkable. At the end of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes says to Lady Brett Ashley, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

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