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Philosophical Reflections on War Rape


The attempted genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina has intensified the effort to understand the existence of evil - the destruction of human beings by other human - which has haunted European and American intellectual life since World War II. How is it possible for human beings to have the capacity not only of killing other people, but of experiencing this killing as nothing extraordinary? (Ervin Staub, Roots of Evil)

It has been documented that among the atrocities committed during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia was war rape - rape committed against civilian women in their homes, or in rape/death camps. These rapes have been committed with a political purpose, to ensure that women and their families will flee and never return, and thus they have been an instrument of "ethnic cleansing."

Men have also been raped, and are thus arguably "feminized" by the enemy. Both parties to the conflict have used rape as a weapon of war, although the largest number of reported victims have been Bosnian Muslims. Beverly Allen, in her book, Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia, has described this form of rape as "genocidal rape," since it is a crime aimed at the systematic annihilation of another people and their culture by rape, death, and pregnancy.

The violence of war rape is experienced through the degradation of a girl or woman and of those affected by her suffering. A fifty-four year old woman who was raped in her home in the municipality of Kljuc, said afterwards, "They denigrated me, which will bear hard upon my body and soul as long as I live."

Survivers of war rape suffer from multiple trauma-- genital trauma, psychological trauma, physical trauma from severe burns, amputations, infected incisions, and the damage done to their threats due to having repeatedly been forced to swallow vast amounts of urine and sperm.

The violence of war rape is also enacted through the possibility of pregnancy. A thirty-nine-year-old Croatian women from the town of Prijedor, who was raped by a reserve captain of the "Serbian Army, was told "that I needed to give birth to a Serb -- that I would then be different." Women are often convinced that the offspring they bear as a result of war rape are also the enemy, leading many survivers to attempt third-trimester abortions or to commit suicide, or to remove themselves from any contact with the infant after birth.

In the view of the Helsinki Watch, the forcible impregnation of women constitutes an abuse separate from the rape and should be denounced as such. It is also noted that the failure to punish rapists is as widespread as the act of rape itself.

Although there is a long tradition in philosophy which reflects on the nature of good and evil, there is a much smaller range of philosophers who reflect on particular phenomenon of good and evil. Here Hannah Arendt is a notable exception, in her studies, The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmanna in Jerusalem. And an even narrower range of philosophers have taken up the question of evil in the form of sexual violence.

Feminist philosophers are beginning to demarcate a path here, notably Claudia Card's essays "Rape Terrorism" in The Unnatural Lottery; Character and Moral Luck and "Rape as a Weapon of War."

For a feminist philosopher and "bystander" to war rapes, one of the most compelling questions in the present age is how to understand the evil enacted by war rape, and in what ways understanding such violence might contribute to its reduction. Here I will briefly discuss Hannah Arendt's analysis of evil in terms of the failure of judgment. Is such an analysis adequate to deal with the form of evil manifest in mass war-rape? Or does sexual violence pose a special challenge to philosophical thinking, requiring a theory that explicitly thematizes the body and its cultural symbolics?

Hannah Arendt is one of the few philosophers of this century who has seriously considered the problem of evil in the context of the political affairs of the world. Her book on Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963/1992), as well as the final work before she died, focussed on the problem of judgment. Judgment seemed to her the crucial issue in the trial of the man who facilitated the mass destruction of the Jews, faced both with the need to arrive at a moral judgment of Eichmann and at Eichmann's own evident failure of judgement (see Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, 1996).

In her book on the Eichmann trial, she sought the lesson of "this long course in human wickedness" and found it in the "fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil." By this phrase she did not mean to minimize or trivialize evil, to treat it as an everyday affair of no import. Rather, her point was to show that the greatest wickedness in human history - beyond the scope of comprehensions - could occur because of the failure of judgement amongst individuals responsible for these acts.

When the legal order is no longer that of a civilized country, but where law becomes the enactment of Hitler's command "Thou shalt kill," when there is no guidance but one's one judgment, then it is judgment to which we must turn to tell right from wrong.

The diagnosis of "failure of judgment" seems a compelling one in the case of Eichmann, since his responsibility in carrying out the Final Solution was primarily in terms of decisions, that is, his decision to follow all orders from his superiors. But can Arendt's analysis of the failure of judgement apply to the cruelty committed during war rape?

Can one also say, as she does in reference to Eichmann and his contemporaries, that war rape was committed by people whose judgement failed them, when there were no other guideposts to follow? And that this failure of judgement was a sign of their inability to achieve impartiality, an ability to take the viewpoints of others into account in order to achieve "enlarged thought"? (Hannah Arendt Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 1982.)

There is of course some sense in which this seems to be true. Had a Serbian soldier raping a Bosnian Muslim woman old enough to be his mother sought to take her viewpoint into account, it is hard to imagine that such an act could have occurred. Aggression in war requires an ability to dehumanize those who are defined as enemies.

This is explicitly trained--from drill songs in the American army that dehumanized the Viet Cong during the Viet Nam war, to training sessions in killing where Serbian soldiers trained other young men to wrestle pigs, pin them to the ground with their heads held back and then cut their throats. (Ed Vulliamy Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia’s War, 1994.)

Yet there is one crucial difference between the form of evil in war rape and that of the Final Solution. In the latter, genocide was carried out by orders through the gas chambers (in addition, of course, to the massive numbers of deaths that occurred in the camps because of cold, starvation, over-work and cruelty, see Primo Levi’s accounts of life and death in the concentrations camps in Survival in Auschwitz, If This Is a Man and The Truce.

What specifically characterizes war-rape is that a man uses his own body as a weapon of war: his hands, his mouth, his genitals are used to inflict pain and injury and degradation and often death. The distancing from seeing the actual results of evil, that characterized Eichmann's crime cannot be present in the example of rape.

In this context, to speak of the act of evil as a failure of judgment would be grossly inadequate to describe this crime. It is not adequate to ask: why did soldiers follow orders (and orders to rape there were)? But rather, how is it possible to radically alter one's physical comportment so that relations of ordinary cordiality in peace time can be turned into sexual violence? Arendt's focus on judgment cannot address the specific corporeal aggression involved in the act of war-rape.

Had Arendt thematized more explicitly the concrete dimensions of the human body, instead of it figuring as a blind spot in her thinking, she might have been able to think about evil acts that involved bodily engagement, and not the bodily disengagement that characterized Eichmann's crimes. But in focussing on judgment, and not the corporeal involvement in evil, Arendt focusses on the possibility of evil as an affair of the intellect (thoughtlessness, or the failure to judge), and not of the transgression of bodily sensibilities.

Although many philosophers would argue that the philosophical task with regard to evil should be the rational justification of universal norms, it seems to me that the need for philosophical reflection lies elsewhere. (Is it really necessary to justify the judgment that murder and rape is wrong?)

Faced with acts of mass-scale evil in the contemporary world, the task faced by philosophers is that of diagnosing the conditions for moral breakdown - of how people come to commit acts that they themselves initially believe are wrong - and of the possibility of altering these conditions. And if moral reflection is to be able to deal adequately with the crises of sexual violence, then it must include an understanding of the symbolics of the body as a central moral concern.

Otherwise moral thinking shows itself to be incapable of addressing the corporality of evil -- of how bodily comportment and sensibilities are radically transformed through the infliction/suffering of violence. In this context, it is also crucial to examine the particular symbolic meaning of the mother's body, since this is the site of vulnerability in war-rape.

Feminist philosophical inquiries into war-rape seek to contribute to an analysis of and a diminishing of this horror. And by implication they embroil philosophy in an enquiry into war and violence that has hitherto occupied only a point of peripheral vision in that discipline.

Robin May Schott is lecturer at the University of Copenhagen

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