“We are going. But we are leaving our seed behind.” (On the multiple functions of men's rape of women during wartime.)

(Warning: this post discusses sexual violence in graphic detail.)

“We are going. But we are leaving our seed behind.”— a West Pakistani soldier, leaving Bangladesh, 1971.

Last week the news was full of horrible stories about the mass rape of over 200 women by rebel soldiers in eastern Congo. Just the headline itself was incredibly terrible to consider. And it gave me a sense of real hopelessness. It sounded like the lawlessness and brutality going on there was so extreme that the very basis of civilization had eroded, and all that remained was this horrific barbarism. Who could do such a horrendous thing? And why would anyone do such a thing?

But as I read the details of the attacks, it began to seem to me that maybe there was something else occurring here. The reports said that the rebel soldiers did not kill anyone. Instead, they raped women in a seemingly highly organized fashion. Three to six men raped each woman, often right in front of the woman’s husband and children. Could it be that this evil was actually being orchestrated by someone? I decided to look further into the issue.

Not just in Africa. One of the first facts that one encounters when beginning to research mass rape is the reality that it has been used as a weapon of war around the globe and throughout history. It is most definitely not limited to the lawless areas of eastern Congo. In just the past fifty years mass rape has been pursued as a strategy of war in multiple locations, including Rwanda, Bangladesh, East Timor, Darfur, and Bosnia.

And while there is no evidence to suggest that the orchestrated rape of women has ever been a U.S. policy, the U.S. military has nonetheless done its share of raping during wartime. The clearing of Native Peoples from their homelands by the U.S. Army in the late 1800s was frequently marked by the rape and massacre of Native women. General George Custer himself kept a captive Native woman in his tent from late 1868 through the spring of 1869.

Rape by U.S. military personnel was also an issue during World War II. On September 17, 1945, Time magazine published a letter from a U.S. serviceman serving in Europe that read, in part: “People who read your article will condemn the Russians for being savages and rapists but will not stop to consider the fact that our own Army and the British Army along with ours have done their share of looting and raping... the percentage is large enough to have given our Army a pretty black name, and we too are considered an army of rapists.”

J. Robert Lilly, in his book Taken by Force: Rape and American GIs in Europe During WWII estimates that American soldiers raped at least 14,000 civilian women during that time.

The horrific 1968 massacre at My Lai by the U.S. Army’s Charlie Company during the Vietnam War is known for its senseless slaughter of Vietnamese civilians. Less often recounted, however, is the fact that during this horrific incident American soldiers also perpetrated numerous rapes of women and girls, including at least one gang rape. An American soldier who witnessed the events later described part of what he saw: "It was [the body of] a woman. 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." http://www.bridgew.edu/soas/jiws/nov00/duty.htm

What is going on here? According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-rape/), rape of women during wartime can serve several purposes: “as recreation and/or as a prize for military victory, the mass rape of female civilians as a strategy or weapon of war, and the enslavement of women and girls to provide sexual service for soldiers and officers.”

What seems especially useful in trying to understand the situation in eastern Congo, however, is the Encyclopedia’s citing the work of Seifert, who argues that rape in war is often not “simply a regrettable byproduct of wartime social breakdown and lack of military discipline (as well as of naturally aggressive male sexuality)... [but] in fact, rape is a routine element of military strategy, aimed at undermining the will, morale, cohesion, and self-conception of the enemy population... and ‘the women are those who hold the families and communities together. Their physical and emotional destruction aims at destroying social and cultural stability …. in many cultures [the female body] embodies the nation as a whole …. The rape of women of a community, culture, or nation can be regarded … as a symbolic rape of the body of that community.’ (1996, 39)

“It is thus not surprising that rape in war often involves heightened sadism, as well as additional abuses such as forcing men to watch the rape of their wives or daughters and forcing women to engage in sex with their own sons, brothers, or other family members. In these and other cases, according to MacKinnon, the rape of female civilians is often ‘a humiliation rite for the men on the other side who cannot (in masculinity's terms) ‘protect’ their women. Many of these acts make women's bodies into a medium of men's expression, the means through which one group of men says what it wants to say to another’ (2006, 223).

“Because rape in war frequently seeks to undermine and destroy bonds of family, community, and culture, there are important points of connection between rape in war and genocidal rape.

“Genocidal rape has been recognized and condemned by both the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) (Askin 2003).

“...MacKinnon describes... genocidal rape ‘as an official policy of war in a genocidal campaign for political control …. It is specifically rape under orders …. It is also rape unto death, rape as massacre, rape to kill and to make the victims wish they were dead. It is rape as an instrument of forced exile, rape to make you leave your home and never want to go back …. It is rape to drive a wedge through a community, to shatter a society, to destroy a people.’ (2006, 187)”

Let’s stop the genocidal rape. I believe that the first step in preventing a phenomenon is understanding it. The mass rapes in the eastern Congo (just like the systemic raping in Darfur and the former “rape camps” in Serb-occupied Bosnia) are not the random sexual rioting of a few crazed men, but rather part of an organized, systemic effort to commit cultural genocide. If we understand this fact, then perhaps we can find the will to stop it. (There was in fact a small UN contingent housed only 10 miles away from the rapes that were happening. But the soldiers were far too small in number to effectively intervene.)

What will it take for us to stop this horror? It takes only our will and our resources. We have the resources and ingenuity to go to the moon, to have humans in a space station constantly orbiting the earth, and to be planning missions to Mars. Certainly we can find a way to stop the genocidal horrors that occur on our own tiny blue-green planet here below.

Bill Clinton has said that his failure to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda (which also involved mass rape as well as mass killing) remains the biggest regret of his presidency. But it didn’t have to be that way. He didn’t have to ignore genocide. And we don’t either. Confronting it takes will. It takes courage. It takes strength. But it can happen.

"Y'all cover me!” The horrific massacre at My Lai was finally brought to an end when one man – an American Army helicopter pilot named Hugh Thomson, Jr. – decided to stop it. He landed his helicopter between a group of unarmed civilians and the advancing American soldiers. "Y'all cover me!” he yelled to his own machine gunners as he leapt out of the helicopter to confront the soldiers. “If these bastards open up on me or these people, you open up on them. Promise me!"

Thomson showed incredible courage, dedication, and integrity. And he stopped the massacre. We should all aim for that kind of response whenever we see such horrors occurring.