In the last days of World War II, the Red Army’s rampaging assaults on Austria and Germany included the raping of hundreds of thousands of women. When a senior Communist denounced such behavior, Josef Stalin criticized not the rapist soldiers, but the Communist: “Can’t he understand if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death, has fun with a woman or takes some trifle?”
Once, sexual violence inflicted on women was regarded as a normal part of war, whether to be celebrated as the victor’s “taking some trifle,” or regretted as part of what makes war hell. Soviet sexual violence was extreme during World War II, but, though totals are debated, American, French and British rape victims too were counted in the many thousands.
At the post-war trials in Nuremberg, the taking of “carnal booty” was not reckoned a war crime.
That has changed. At the international tribunals after the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, war rape was defined as a crime against humanity. Rape was understood neither as “fun with a woman,” nor as an expression of individual lust, but as a brute exercise of power, an integral part of the humiliation inflicted on an enemy. The victim of war rape undergoes a double insult, since the attack on her is, additionally, an attack on her countrymen, who failed to defend her. Forced impregnation highlights the shame, and carries the vanquishing into the future (In the part of Germany under Soviet control, 200,000 “Russian babies” were born in 1945-’46). A nation is not defeated until its women are ravaged, an ultimate emasculating of men.
However embedded as normalcy in the dark history of primeval violence, this use of rape as an instrument of war is no longer to be tolerated — or so it was declared in the 1990s. Yet last week, initiating the 59th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon highlighted the ongoing urgency of rape as “a vile weapon of war,” with many thousands of women still grotesquely victimized by it today.
Ban Ki-moon singled out Nigeria, Somalia, Iraq, and Syria as places where sexual mayhem is rampant. Indeed, the genocidal assault by the Islamic State against the Yazidis, beginning last August, centered as it is on the systematic raping of Yazidi women, has ignited a new awareness of this problem.
In Nigeria, meanwhile, Boko Haram’s terror campaign centers on the kidnapping and enslavement of girls. Both Boko Haram and ISIS have weaponized the horror of rape. Its strategic value — instilling local fear and laying bare global impotence — has proven to be enormous.
In the United States, all of this can seem far away. True, sexual violence continually surfaces as a disturbing part of contemporary American life, whether in the military, where soldiers are far more likely to be raped by friend than killed by foe, or on campuses, nearly a hundred of which are undergoing Title IX sexual violence investigations. In fact, war is only part of the global story of anti-female violence, since well over a third of murdered women are killed by intimate partners, compared with one in 20 murdered men.
Still, as Ban Ki-moon insisted last week, war rape cries out to be addressed, and in the United States that means explicitly adding abhorrent mass sex crimes to the first-order calculus of our own war-making. Once the devils are loose, it is easy to forget what unleashed the pandemonium in the first place. In Washington, policy makers’ anticipations of “collateral damage” are self-servingly abstract, as if what goes wrong after an American intervention can be toted up in civilian body counts, which, however tragic, amount to transient calamities. As events in the Middle East and Africa have shown, two far more lethal and long-lasting consequences of US military incursions are the exponential escalation of local firepower and the obliteration of social order. America does not engage in, or sponsor, mass rape, but for 15 years America has been exacerbating, and creating, situations in which mass rape thrives. There’s the lesson: If criminal sexual violence can no longer be denied in counting up war’s cost after the fact, the likelihood of its coming to pass should no longer be denied before the fact.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.