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Published:March 28th, 2010 21:02 EST
Military Looks the Other Way When it Comes to Rape

Military Looks the Other Way When it Comes to Rape

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

The Lucky Ones, a 2008 film about three Iraq War veterans who return to an America that doesn`t seem to have room for them, raises some of the questions societies almost never raise when they send their children to war.

A middle-aged sergeant played by Tim Robbins returns to a wife who has outgrown him and wants a divorce. A young soldier played by Rachel McAdams wants to return her slain boyfriend`s guitar to his parents, but she finds the stories he told her were lies. A young sergeant played by Michael Pena faces a fourth tour in Iraq and thinks his luck has run out.

Here is the heartbreak society doesn`t want to think about. The flag-waving, the speeches, the lies, the patriotism on steroids are all in the past, and now these three heroes have to heal their wounded lives and find their places in a society more interested in sending them to a new post than in welcoming them home.

The Gunfighter, a 1969 book by Joseph G. Rosa, described how many veterans of the American Civil War turned to crime and gunslinging because they had become so intimate with death that it no longer held for them the terrors it holds for most of us. This intimacy with horror gave them an advantage over others. It made them dangerous. (I haven`t read this book, but recently described it.) It inevitably raises the question of how many of our veterans will turn to crime. We already know many of them have become mercenaries and that our army can no longer meet all its obligations without contractors, a development that signaled the fall of Rome.

The aftermath of war is one of those things societies don`t talk about. It`s always imperative to go to war, but it`s never imperative to plan for its inevitable desolation. That`s usually because the people who say it`s imperative to make war aren`t the ones who have to fight it and suffer its consequences. They`re usually the ones who plan to make huge profits from war.

War not only kills those who fight in it, it also slowly kills those who return, and often their families and loved ones with them. They come home with blank eyes and disheartened souls. Often their emotional wounds are even greater than their physical wounds. Often they can`t find their ways back into the societies they left. They don`t want to. They`ve seen too much, they know too much. True, some of them spend the rest of their lives drinking in Legion halls and telling stories, but they`re the visible ones. The invisible ones turn to crime, become alcoholics, deteriorate in hospitals and often end up on the street or in Potter`s Fields.

That`s one dark and shunned side of war, but there are others. One of the most eerie concerns sexuality. What does war do to our women in the military and the women whose countries become battlegrounds? How many are raped or coerced, forced into prostitution, abused, left homeless, broken, mentally ill? Who is talking about about war`s effect on Iraqi women as much as about its politics or money or oil? And yet women are half the human equation. And it`s not just the civilian women, but also the military women who are abused, harassed or raped by their comrades and supervisors. A 2003 Defense Department report says that of a national sample of female veterans asking the Veteran`s Administration for health care, almost a third said they experienced rape or attempted rape during their service. Of that group, 37 percent said they were raped multiple times, and 14 percent reported they were gang-raped " ( The Women`s War, " by Sara Corbett, New York Times Magazine, Mar. 18, 2007). Why isn`t there more press coverage of this issue? Where has it ever been, in any war?

There have always been matters one does not talk about. (I use one " to imbue the discussion with a little toniness.) And in this age of exhibitionism I`m all for a bit of Victorianism. But there may be some things we had better talk about so that the human race doesn`t get stuck in the cement of hypocrisy, And one of these, I believe, may be the sexuality of our defenders.

I received a book, La Tolerance, in the mail the other day from a friend in France who has been researching policies towards prostitution in French colonial Algeria. The author of this important work, Barkahoum Ferhati, comes from Bou Saada, a city legendary for its Ouled Nail dancers and also its colonial prostitution.

I can`t speak authoritatively about La Tolerance because it`s in French and my knowledge of that language is inadequate, although I do read French poetry. But I can see that Mlle. Ferhati`s book raises daunting questions about what armies of occupation do about their sexual lives.

Is this too delicate a subject to discuss? Would we rather blather on about gays in uniform and let this much larger issue languish? Of course we would. It`s a tradition "one we ought to abandon in order to become civilized. Why? Because it`s uncivilized to blather on about rape in Darfur and Central Africa while ignoring the fact that our soldiers, men and women, are sexual beings who are encountering other sexual beings in time of war and creating consequences that are undoubtedly being swept under the carpet. What about prostitution in Iraq and Afghanistan? Are these antiseptic wars in which there are no prostitutes, no rapes, no sexual predations? Or is there a consensual silence about it? And if there have been rapes, there have been casualties. All victims of rape are permanently maimed. They never recover, just as soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress do not recover. Some learn to cope and some don`t.

So how to account for this silence, this complicity on the part of everyone concerned? Not only are we silent, but also our allies, the Iraqis, and our enemies, too. This is a human disgrace, and it does not wear just one uniform.

How do we accommodate the sexuality of our soldiers? Mlle. Ferhati says the French dealt with the issue by countenancing prostitution on a grand scale, by winking at its cultural and moral consequences, and by indulging a mammoth hypocrisy. Is this our policy in Iraq and Afghanistan? And if so, can we really expect to win the hearts and minds of a people whose women we have desecrated?

We know the French did not win Algerians` hearts and minds, and they had more than a century to do it.

How can our press tell us they have covered these wars when we have heard so little about sexuality, rape, molestation? Would the press have us believe there has been none of it? Would the press have us believe that our soldiers simply left their sexuality at home and will resume it when they return? That is certainly not the message of The Lucky Ones. Does the press acre? Is its sanitized version of an Iraq war without brothels, without prostitution, without rape or sexual abuse the fantasy we really want to wrap around our necks, or are we grown up enough to ask what is really going on? Do we care as a society?

These are some of the issues Mlle. Ferhati raises in La Tolerance. Another book, about Japan`s comfort women " in World War II, is War`s Dirty Secret: Rape, Prostitution, and Other Crimes Against Women, Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Ed., Pilgrim, 257 pp, 2001, review in Christian Century, Oct. 17, 2001. We should be raising these issues, too.

Pretense is always more comfortable, conforming as it does to our fantasies about ourselves. But in this instance it constitutes an erasure of half of humanity.


Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.

Del`s book, Far From Algiers:

New review of Far from Algiers:

Artists Hill, Literal Latté`s fiction first prize:

His blog:

His mother`s art:

His aunt`s art: