Wartime Rape, Seen Scientifically

I’ve been researching the Comfort Women issue (most recently, having completed George Hicks’ book on the subject), and ever since I read Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, and more recently, since I got into a discussion about rape in the comments section of this post, I’ve been thinking a lot about rape in terms of it being a human behaviour. It’s the theme of a story I’m slowly reworking these days, called “The Crystal Methuselah,” as well as one of my Clarion stories which I’d like to rework and send out in the next little while, a horror tale called “Comfort Woman”, and so I’ve devoted a fair bit of thought to the subject.

Now, this sounds weird, so let me explain what that means. I am not asserting that rape isn’t a horrible act. Rape is reprehensible, by any sensible moral code. It’s an imposition against its victims, and it is always a choice made by the people who perpetrate it. Victims should not be blamed for being raped. As velourmane points out, women don’t really avoid getting raped by wearing unattractive clothes, or by never drinking in public. Even staying home all the time is not a guaranteed defense against rape. I am not justifying rape, is what I’m getting at.

But there is more than one way to crack and egg. Just as Stephen Pinker points out in The Language Instinct, looking at something from a values-based stance is not the same as looking at something from a scientific stance. What looks like “bad grammar” to what he calls a “language maven” is in fact more properly understood–from a purely scientific point of view–as normative or semi-normative human linguistic behaviour.

Now, if we look at the history of war, we can see that rape, far from being an unusual behaviour, is a normative one in the context of war. (And let me note that this is somewhat horrifying to me.) It seems as if there is something about mass violence that also seems to relate to human male sexuality. That men across cultures react to the stresses of war by procuring as much sex as possible, from women both willing and otherwise.

Theories in the past have suggested that this has to do with the breaking of morale among the conquered, but I’m not so sure. For example, this post at Marmot’s includes a link to an article that suggests this is a false rationalization. The headline itself is suggestive of why: Red Army troops raped even Russian women as they freed them from camps. That’s right, Russian soldiers didn’t only rape enormous numbers of German women, but while they were at it also raped Polish and even Russian women.

I have a deep distrust of Freud with his shadow-puppet dramas linking the drives of eros and thanatos, but it seems to me that a more primal explanation, one based in instinct, might explain this behaviour which, as the Telegraph article linked above suggests, is far from normative in peacetime. In wartime, the constant threat and danger kicks in a powerful reproductive instinct, and human males perhaps instinctively adopt a different reproductive strategy from the one they tend toward in peacetime. In peacetime, it’s safe to say that humans are mostly monogamous, as Jared Diamond describes in fascinating detail through comparing our anatomy with that of other primates. It seems to me that when severe distress kicks in, humans might just adopt different reproductive strategies. That’s probably why humans survived whatever population bottlenecks confronted us in the past, and probably also part of how small groups of humans managed to maintain their populations in periods following staggering confrontations with other groups.

Again, before you start typing your angry comments, dear reader, note that none of this is a justification of rape. It’s just to say that human evolution took place in a harsh, unforgiving, and oftentimes brutal world, under dire and threatening circumstances. It’s hardly surprising that we have so many disreputable traits within the palette of human behaviours–that human nature includes some very brutal and ugly capacities and drives–but it’s important to recognize that this is the case.

The reason for this is the same concern I have with velourmane’s discussion of rights: rights and freedoms are important, but they’re something that we have to safeguard and realistically, people in any position of power or authority are often quite cavalier about disregarding human rights. “You gotta problem with that? Come on, do something about it… you and what army?” Obviously, UN resolutions and international laws may be useful in prosecuting those who trespass, after the fact, but they don’t do a damned bit of good when you’ve got hordes of soldiers bearing down on a prisoner camp full of women. Those soldiers probably aren’t even the (relatively more) rational and sane people that they normally are. I’d wager that they are in what might well be an altered state of consciousness — I imagine, though I don’t know, that being in combat does alter one’s mental state, and the documentary The Human Behaviour Experiments drove home that even being in a military hierarchy, or in a position of uniformed authority over others, can quickly push people into behaviours they normally, out of uniform and outside of authority, would find horrifying.

So while I agree that those women in that camp have the right to be free from sexual violation, and I agree that acknowledging it is important, I have my doubts that anything like this assertion, even over a lifetime of indoctrination of the men involved, is going to constrain those soldiers from doing what soldiers have so often done to civilian women during wartime. What I’m saying is that, given that this behaviour — however horrifying it is — isn’t a completely deviant one in wartime, but instead appears to be a widespread one, legalistic discussion of rights, consciousness-raising among men (during peacetime), and even stricter control of troops is unlikely to eliminate it.

Rights and legislation aren’t, in other words, effective preventative measures. Rights are abstractions, and important ones, but preventative measures need by necessity to be concrete, palpable, and enforceable. Which raises the question of what would be more likely to minimize, or eliminate it?

I’m not exactly sure. I guess it all depends on whether one thinks war is an ineradicable thing. The best solution would be not to have any more wars, for, as George Hicks notes at the end of The Comfort Women (and this is a paraphrase), women are the most universal victims of war. But, again, given human nature and our penchant for violence — as well as the way that is possibly is rooted in potentially less destructive urges to ensure our own survival, compete with others, and expand our presence and resource base — war may be with us forever.

If that’s the case, maybe ensuring that women are able to militarily defend themselves, arming them with weapons that minimize the proximity of any unwelcome force (foreign or friendly alike), and other concrete, practical safeguards might be the way to go. I’d be curious to see what the militaries of various nations have to say about this. I have a hunch the Canadian military would take the stance of their representative who participated in the debate after the Canadian airing of The Human Behaviour Experiments, where the poor fellow just claimed again and again that restructuring had effectively made it impossible for the Canadian military to behave in an untoward manner. Personally, I’m doubtful that anything other than a fully armed female population, or behaviour-restricive implants in soldiers, or the total elimination of war could ever ensure that.

The issue of sexual violence in peacetime is something I haven’t thought about or read as much about, though I shall be getting around to that in the near (read: next few years) future. It’s a more pressing issue, for a whole host of reasons, namely that, while we like to think it’s a deviant behaviour, this too occur widely enough within the range of human behaviours as to be predictable and expectable no matter how much consciousness-raising and empowerment of women is achieved. In other words, even in peacetime, some sexual predators are going to be inflicting sexual violence on women. Given that fact, what can we do to wipe out rape? If it is an ineradicable behaviour, how best to defend against it? I’ll be thinking more about this in the next while, and thoughts by those who know more than me are quite welcome.

4 thoughts on “Wartime Rape, Seen Scientifically

  1. Have you read “The Rape of Nanking” by Iris Chang? I highly recommend it, but will warn you that it is EXTREMELY disturbing.

  2. It’s on my pile, and uite high on the pile, actually. Right on top of Barenblatt’s A Plague upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan’s Biological Warfare Program.

    What’s really weird, and I don’t know whether Chang gets into this, is the Japanese military reaction to what happened in Nanjing. According to George Hicks, in The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War, the military higher-ups apparently decided it was important to have soldiers sexually “serviced” so that they wouldn’t assault and rape the locals willy-nilly. And so they started sending out Japanese, and then Korean, prostitutes, followed soon by tons of women who were “hired” under false pretences, sold off by local collaborators (especially in Korea), or, supposedly, kidnapped.

    Not having read the Chang, I have my suspicions about this theory that the Japanese military viewed this as a breakdown in discipline among the troops, considering that the high command probably was ambiguous in its orders to the soldiers in the first place, but, yeah, Chang’s book is definitely on my list. And I’ve heard that it’s disturbing before, so I am mentally braced for it.

    That reminds me, though. I’ve probably seen some very similar things before. There was a downright horrifying documentary about what happened on Jeju Island, in South Korea, from 1948-1954. It was this island where people had it so bad that, during the Japanese occupation, people from Jeju apparently emigrated to Japan in sizeable numbers in order to avoid discrimination at the hands of their fellow Koreans! (Or thus I’ve read.) Anyway, there was some kind of rebellion on the island, and they were calling for reunification after the war, and so they were labeled communist. Massacre ensued. The documentary I saw showed some images that made me weep: hangings, bayonets shoved into womens’ genitals, children slaughtered. There was testimony by people who’d survived the massacre, describing all the horrible things that had been done to their family members as they were made to stand and watch. Apparently on Jeju, there’s still a saying (or was, as of sometime in the 80s or early 90s) that if a kid says, “I want to be a policeman,” the parent responds, “Why not be a butcher instead?”

    In the documentary, which was called Red Hunt (sorry, no link, I can’t find anything worth linking to), there’s a little bit of the knee-jerk reaction of blaming the American troops who witnessed the proceedings, which were carried out right in front of them, but didn’t intervene. (Had the film been made today, it would have focused on that spin, but from what I remember, thank goodness, it’s more balanced than anything that would be made today.) In fact, a lot of energy is spent on pointing out that it was the Korean government doing this to Koreans. Here’s what happened when it was played at a Human Rights Film Festival. And here’s an article by Wolcott Wheeler on the massacre itself.

  3. Hi gord
    Of course my memory is bad these days, but I believe Chang did address that in her book. It is an incredible book, definitely worth reading–but yes, not when you’re already feeling low.

  4. Well, I’m not feeling low, but it’s not quite on the top of my list right now… mostly just because I’ve read a lot of nonfiction lately and have a craving for fiction again. But I will get to it, and soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *