Unspeakable: Rape and War

Is rape an inevitable -- and marginal -- part of war? Bosnia opens a terrible new perspective. It shows rape as policy to scorch the enemy's emotional earth.

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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.

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