Monday, October 01, 2007

Collateral Damage

Roel sent me this open letter to Ken Burns this morning, and I thought it was worth posting here. The entire piece is here:, but here's an excerpt:

‘The War,’ Mr. Burns, is the Yokosuka rape queues in August 1945, with GI’s lined up for blocks, two abreast, to get at the Japanese girls enslaved in ‘comfort stations’ for them—with the full cooperation of the American and Japanese authorities. Destitute, vulnerable girls were raped into unconsciousness as the men joked and laughed and jostled in line, waiting their turn. Some girls bled to death. Some committed suicide—that is, the lucky ones who could escape. Not one ‘comfort girl’ has told her story—due to shame. Why did you not tell this particular ‘intimate history’ of ‘The War,’ Mr. Burns? Especially since ‘usage’ of the girls was almost 100%. Why has the small detail that almost every GI in Japan, 1945, was a rapist escaped you? Why his this big ‘dirty secret’ of war never been covered?

‘The War,’ Mr. Burns, is the men who lined up to use the prostitutes on Hotel Street in Honolulu: women were raped 100 times a day—a different man entered the girl every three minutes. Why should I mourn these rapists when they were killed in the attack at Pearl Harbor? They slaughtered the bodies of these women in a fashion far more brutal than any bombing could ever be.

The War,’ Mr. Burns, is the widespread rape of French girls by GI’s after they ‘liberated’ Paris. Rape by American soldiers was so common that Eisenhower actually had to acknowledge it was happening, although he did nothing to stop

‘The War’ is the public parks in Palermo, where pimps considerately laid out mattresses so the GI’s could fuck starving Italian girls comfortably, for a dollar or two a turn.

The War’ is homeless, prostituted girls in Berlin doing it in the rubble for a few cents and agreeing to ‘share’ a GI bed so they would simply have a place to sleep that night. This, after they had already had the insides raped out of them by the invading Russian army and then were labeled ‘whores’ since it was a convenient way for the authorities to deal with these ‘ruined’ women.""

The back story of human history is the story of anyone not exciting enough to be a star - the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the poor, and especially women. And the stars often get carte blanche to inflict as much "collateral" damage as they'd like in the pursuit of our goals - and that that is part of the *point* of many of our actions. That is, as Bosnia and Abu Ghraib and other recent atrocities have pointed out to us - destroying civilian lives, torturing people, raping women - those are part of the point of war, and part of the point of taking political power. They are not accidents, they are not collateral - instead, when we show our power and our strength, we show it by hurting the vulnerable.

I do not agree with the writer's claim that war is a particularly male perversion, nor do I think that none of what Burns so lovingly portrays about heroics is true - say rather that the two are simultaneously, horrifyingly, the truth, and that that is what history is - the juxtaposition of all the truths. But I do think that we must open our eyes to "collateral" damage and recognize that it is not accidental, or unintentional. For example, the collateral damage we in the rich world do to the poor world is not merely an expression of unintentional harm, but is avoidable, and operates to show our power and our wealth.

I worry about women's future after peak oil and climate change. As all over the world we get hungrier and poorer, and wars break out over food and water and fossil fuels, women will pay the price in ways that men won't. Women are always poorer than men. Hunger drives women to prostitution, war legitimizes rape, poverty make the protection of the weak a low priority. Climate change will play itself out in laboratories and in news stories about drought. It will only rarely appear as news stories about young girls sold into sexual slavery because their families can't feed them. Peak oil will appear in the news as war in the middle east and stories of gas shortages - but only rarely in the form of women raped by soldiers. When food starts going short, we will speak loudly of how awful overpopulation is, but only rarely of how often women are powerless to control their own bodies. But the truth is that the sheer numbers of scientists holding press conferences will be vastly smaller than the number of girls weeping after the first man rapes them.

I once read a review of _Saving Private Ryan_ that observed that in our new glorification of "the good war" we seem to have forgotten all the lessons of "the bad war" - that is, Vietnam. That is, that the message of World War II movies is that the greatest horror of war is the bad things that can happen to you in war. The message of Vietnam movies is that the greatest horror of war is the bad things war requires you to do to other people. And as we've replaced Vietnam movies with a preference (who wouldn't prefer them) for World War II movies, we've shaken off the underlying recognition that in some ways, death isn't the worst thing that can happen to us - that becoming the evil you are supposed to be resisting is worse.

We cannot afford the war we are in now, much less any future wars. We cannot afford the dead and lost soldiers, and we cannot afford the moral destruction of making a generation of soldiers into people who will commit atrocities. We cannot afford the artificial division of families into those at home waiting, or those at home prostituting themselves for food, and those off fighting and visiting prostitutes. We cannot afford the notion that the vulnerable, the poor, the sick, the old and women are acceptable collateral damage as we struggle to keep our cars on the road. We cannot afford to be the kind of people who know only the front room history, and keep the rest of the truth hidden in back, under a stack of corpses.

We cannot afford to lie to ourselves about the past or about the future. We cannot afford a simple version of history. We cannot afford to take the anger of those who suffer "collateral" damage for granted, if only because they are us. All of us are either women or have women we love in our lives. All of us will someday be old, most of us will someday be poor, each of us has been a child, each has had or will have moments of sickness and debility. And even if it never comes to us, it will transform us, either into the kind of people who resist destroying others with all their might, or the kind of people who accept it, and silence the voice of history.

About a year ago, I wrote "Peak Oil is a Women's Issue" because I was worried that in the rhetoric about energy, we were losing sight of a major part of how peak oil would play out. I am even more certain that that is true today - that as long as our discussion focuses on electric rail, hybrid cars and getting solar panels on the homes of the middle class, we are losing the battle to protect ordinary people, from the consequences of ordinary poverty and ordinary hungry, and that a majority of the victims will be women and girls, elderly people and the disabled, whose history and voices simply get shoved to the back room.



Anonymous said...

Sharon, it is so hard to comment on this becuase not only is it so true (and happening now), but because is seems so impossible to stop it on a large scale. Yes, we can try to educcate our sons not to rape, but we can hardly reach the boys who grow up in rape cultures. We can try to protect the vulnerable we know and who live close to us, but we are can not take them all under our protection. We can not even assume that we will always be a possition to protect our own children, or won't have to make unthinkable choices.

Of couse, this doesn't mean we mustn't try, but the enmornity of the burden is staggering.


Anonymous said...

Both my father and my father in law were WWII vets and neither raped anyone. My husband and brother in law are both Viet Nam vets neither of them raped anyone. Did rapes occur, unfortunately they did but the article paints with too broad a brush.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sharon,

We're watching the Ken Burns documentary, and I was having similar thoughts. World War II is a real problem because it's arguably one of the most justified of wars. But it is the exception, not the rule.

Most wars are stupid, pointless and brutal. Even the "best" of wars are stupid and brutal. Rape always seems to be a part of wars, and you're right that women and the weaker sections of society are the ones who will suffer the most with higher levels of violence.

Energy Bulletin

PS You might want to show where the quoted section ends, and your comments begin. Right now it is ambiguous. I think your comments begin with "I do not agree with the writer's claim..."

emily said...

Thank you very, very much for posting this.
I think that war also makes unclear where the line between rape and consensual prostitution lies. I'm most familiar with the case of Berlin. If getting something to eat depended on sex with a Russian or American soldier...

Anonymous said...

Generally speaking, and not addressing the male relations of the previous poster, I would not take the fact that men did not mention to their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters that they rape someone as proof positive that they did not.

You also have to consider (again, speaking in general terms) that what we now consider an act of rape may well not be considered one by the rapist.

I am thinking, in particular, of veryyoung teens age girls, refugees I know, who were forced to have sex with men, but who did not considered themselves to have been raped because the men in question had obtained their fathers' permission, and, in fact were often their fathers' friends, who paid for the privilage with food.


Anonymous said...

MEA, How many rapes would you commit if you were a soldier?

Anonymous said...

I have no idea. I like to think, none. In the midst of a psychotic episode or if I'd been raised with a sense of entitlement with regard to sex, knows.

Frankly, circumstances excuse me from having to deal with careful examination of this aspect of my character. 45 year old women living in the United States are unlikely to find themselves in a situtation where they are likely to indulge in battlefield rape or visit women who have been forced into whoredom.

That said, I'm not excatly devoting my life to working to protect women and children in wartorn lands, you feel free to point the finger.


jewishfarmer said...

I don't know anything about anyone's grandparents but my own, but I can't say that I know with any absolute certainty that my grandfather, who was a World War II hero, shot down over France, never did anything shameful. I never asked - perhaps others did.

But we do know is that millions of women were forced into prostitution, raped and sexually misused during the course of the war. Millions. There's ample historical documentation of that. So if your family did have the courage to resist the tremendous cultural pressure to use prostitutes, did remain faithful during the long years at war, and did not take advantage of rape, even when it was approved or encouraged, you can be proud that your family members were particularly able to resist cultural pressure.

My point (and my own thoughts begin at the end of the quotation marks - sorry if that isn't clear) isn't quite the same as the writer of the above letter - it isn't that all the soldiers are evil, it is that certain circumstances - war, poverty, cultural violence - they all enable us to become something we claim we are not. Resisting those pressures is damned hard.

I think the writer of the letter is utterly entitled to her anger and her brush - her own brush is no broader than Burns', which erases the rape out of World War II. But it isn't all the truth that ever was - it is simply an important part of the truth.

And it is hard to tell when you perform evil acts that your culture endorses, encourages and supports, how much is you and how much is someone else. I read the transcripts of the trial of Lindie English, the young woman in the photos of Abu Ghraib, and what I saw was an ordinary, slightly troubled, not very bright woman who, if she had stayed at home, would have never been pressured into torture.

That doesn't excuse it or forgive it, but it does mean that we can alter the circumstances that create and enable the sexual exploitation of women - if we choose to make it a priority.


Andrew said...

A good link.
It talks about how, in war, the majority of soldiers refuse to kill.

I wonder, if most soldiers won't fire on an enemy, how many would rape a woman. I'm not suggesting that these atrocities didn't occur by any means. And I strongly agree that these stories should be told and that is of particular concern as we approach peak oil and rash of war that is sure to accompany it. Maybe these are the brutal actions of a significant minority.

jewishfarmer said...

Andrew, that is almost certainly true of formal rape.

I suspect, however, that most soldiers don't regard the use of prostitutes as rape. And sometimes it isn't. I'm not an absolutist on the subject of prostitution - some women do it willingly, although I doubt many do it enthusiastically - and I don't believe that all sex with prostitutes is rape.

But sex with a woman or girl who was coerced by starvation, parents, war policies, etc... is rape. A prostitute who can't say "no." A prostitute who can't choose otherwise. A prostitute who cannot protect herself, is being raped.

And I think many men, soldiers and otherwise, fail to make that connection. They don't ask, and they don't care, or perhaps they do care, but assume there's no issue.

I do not single out soldiers here - millions of men who are not soldiers use prostitutes all over the world, many of them trafficked and non-consensual. And that would be rape. It certainly isn't *very* unusual, more's the pity.


Stephen Heyer said...

A very difficult and unpleasant subject, but one we probably have to consider seriously as war, worse, messy wars against determined, sophisticated resistance fighters, seem to coming back into fashion again as the major powers become desperate for resources. Sharon is very brave to say out loud what needs to be said.

The trouble is, we may have worse problems than we think, as suggested below.

andrew: “A good link.
It talks about how, in war, the majority of soldiers refuse to kill.”

I think perhaps a better article is his (David Grossman’s) “Trained To Kill” at .

In it he presents a very good argument that television and video games cause the same kind of desensitization in children as careful military brutalization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and role modeling produce in soldiers. This of course does not directly CAUSE anyone to kill – it just ALLOWS them to, where a person who had not been desensitized would not be able to.

Desensitization probably also makes it much more likely that a person would be able to rape and torture, especially if they are not too bright and/or rather naive and thus have few internal defenses against pressure from superiors or peers.

I must say that I agree with him. I became interested in the subject long ago when the Australian “chattering classes” first copied the fashion for gun control from the USA, despite that fact that the rate of murder in Australia was and is tiny compared to the USA.

To make a long story less long, strict new laws were introduced and while the number of people killed by firearms (many suicides) went down, the actual number dying hardly changed from the already existing trend line. In other words, the means changed but the amount of harm did not.

It was while puzzling over this that I first encountered David Grossman and what he was saying seemed to make about as much sense as anything else.

The problem is, that if he is right, we (the West) have been busily desensitizing ourselves for the past half century, turning a population who often could not kill even in self-defense into one where much of the population could, given the right circumstances. Not a good change!

The odd thing is that when I suggested to some of my anti-gun friends and acquaintances that while they were getting the new laws passed, perhaps we should have a look at TV and video games they were horrified and I was told in no uncertain terms that they were against censorship. Oh well, we all have our little dogmas.

As a final comment, some families I know either severely restrict their children’s TV watching, or have no TV in the house. They also apply the same rules to themselves, otherwise it just does not work.

The usual reason given is the huge amount of time TV watching steals from study, family socialization and physical play, but I also often get the impression that the children are somehow “nicer” and more considerate of others.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sharon, for the challenging post and sparking this excellent discussion.

As I see it, the problem here is patriarchy. As you correctly point out, it is hard to know that something is evil when it is common and endorsed. But it goes beyond these soldiers not being able to recognize the inherently compromised consent of coerced prostitution in war.

Our culture endorses a notion of masculine sexuality that is need-based. E.g. men have a physical need for sex that for some inexplicable reason masturbation can't fulfill. Women, on the other had, are still overwhelmingly assumes not to like sex. The so-called sexual revolution raised an awareness that women can enjoy sex and perhaps even that women might be entitled to seek sexual pleasure, but, nonetheless, the overarching assumption is that women don't like sex as much as men do and don't want as much as men want. It seems that as long as women's sexual appetites are assumed to be finite and men's infinite, coerced sex doesn't stand in such sharp contrast to the reluctant sex that men are taught to assume is the norm.

WWII's Pacific Theater (and Vietnam) have the added cultural baggage of Victorian dichotomies reinforced by (post)colonial otherings of Asian women that places them firmly in the "whore" side of the dichotomy. Add to this the racist mythology of Asian women's passivity and you have a recipe for atrocity.

Sharon will of course, due to her academic specialty, recognize that I should heavily credit Gilbert and Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic for this comment. Another source I've relied heavily on in my thinking about institutionalized rape is Claudia Card's The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil which has an excellent chapter titled "Rape in War." Conveniently enough, it's available as a google book here. I had the privilege of taking a graduate seminar with Professor Card in 2002 when the book first came out (we were in fact using advance copies from the publisher and were asked to be attentive to typos as we read). I can't recommend it enough.

RAS said...

Sharon, this was a good post though I found it to be very hard to read. (Being a survivor myself doesn't help that though.)

Stephen -David Grossman is right on the money. I'm a grad student in pyschology and have read lots of material on dehumanization and the like. Furhtermore, it has been known since the 60s at least (I can look up the citation for the first study if you like) that tv violence is directly linked to aggression in children. Futhermore, recent studies have shown that excessive tv viewing (even of relatively non violent content) can not only desensitize children, it can literally mess with the wiring of the brain and prevent the formation of a proper attention span and of critical thinking skills.

(And no, I'm not demonizing television -just pointing out its downsides.)

Ares Olympus said...

An imagined "war" against the equality and power of women is the most scary one I can imagine, and so easily hidden from attention.

One reader said her husband and father-in-law were not rapist, but neither were the German people technically murderers for turning a blind eye to what was happening around them.

It is heartbreaking to imagine how much insecurity and brutality exists compared to my security, and perhaps my own life is turning a blind eye to the corruptions in the system that feed my well-being.

So easy to push it out and say "That's someone else" and keep plugging away at my 401(k) contributions for a theorical possibility that my needs someday outweigh the needs others have now.

Some morality seems crystal clear from a distance, and I can't tell how it fails close up.

Anonymous said...

Bringing this beyond rape, which may or may not be relevant in terms of the proposed situation----starving people don't rape, they steal food, kill and eat people, kill people and take livestock, etc---what would you do if needed to feed your children?

jewishfarmer said...

Actually, starving people do rape, or at least poor men in desperately poor, hungry societies pay a little of their money to screw even more desperate poor women who are trying feed their starving kids. There are desperately poor urban regions of the world where one out of every 6 women prostitutes herself - because it is the only way to feed your children. Since I'm not really very good at killing people and I've seen soylent green, my guess is that I'd prostitute myself before I'd kill, but steal before that. Does that in some way help your analysis? I'm not sure I see your point.


Anonymous said...


I really appreciate your willingness to bring light onto ALL of the insanities of war. Your post is hard hitting and provacative. Although "food for sex" exists elsewhere in the animal kingdom and has been with us through all time and cultures, it is hard to argue that the men in this situation should not have shared their food without the quid pro quo, but temptation is like that.

Anonymous said...


I really appreciate your willingness to bring light onto ALL of the insanities of war. Your post is hard hitting and provacative. Although "food for sex" exists elsewhere in the animal kingdom and has been with us through all time and cultures, it is hard to argue that the men in this situation should not have shared their food without the quid pro quo, but temptation is like that.

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