Saturday, February 16, 2008

State Rape: Representations of Rape in Viet Nam

Karen Stuhldreher, Political Science Department, University of Washington, Seattle

The act of raping women is largely understood to be an inevitable consequence of war. As General George S. Patton predicted during World War II, "there would unquestionably be some raping."1 Rape and the mutilation of women's bodies are evidently part of the usual military fare in war. During the Vietnam war, rape was in fact an all too common occurrence, often described by GIs as SOP--standard operating procedure.2 "That's an everyday affair... you can nail just about everybody on that--at least once," offered a squad leader in the 34d Platoon of Charlie Company when questioned by a reporter about the rape that occurred at My Lai.3 Another GI, Joe Galbally, when testifying for the Winter Soldier Investigation, concluded his report about a specific incident of gang rape by American soldiers by saying, "This wasn't just one incident; this was the first one I can remember. I know of 10 or 15 such incidents at least." Galbally was in Vietnam for one year, from 1967-1968.4

In fact, very few American GIs were "nailed" for rape in Vietnam. Despite the fact that it is a crime according to international law, prohibited under the Geneva Convention and punishable by death or imprisonment under Article 120 of the American Uniform Code of Military Justice, acts of rape were rarely reported and seldom convicted during the Vietnam war.5 The number of rape cases tried did not nearly reflect the rampancy of rape in Vietnam. The conviction rates were low and the sentences extremely light. In Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller provides Army court-martial statistics for rape and related charges: only fifty-eight percent of those tried between 1965 and 1973 were convicted.6 Information on sentencing was difficult to come by, according to Brownmiller. She writes, "a sentence of two to eight years at hard labor might be typical for rape, even in cases in which the victim had been murdered; sodomy, attempted rape and attempted sodomy were preferred as charges because they carried lesser penalties; and sentences were routinely cut in half by a board of review."7

Justifications are many and varied for the reluctance of the U.S. military to treat rape as a criminal offense, and for its subsequent persistence as a business-as-usual practice in Vietnam. But for the most part such rationalizations rest on the general perception of rape as an inevitable extension of wartime activity; it is accepted, even encouraged, as the way of war about which little can be done. What underlies this thin expression and overly simplistic explanation and how can we move toward a fuller, more critical understanding of why the practice of rape was allowed to become "an everyday affair" during the Vietnam war?

Although the question of motivation may seem significant to gaining a further understanding of why the rape of Vietnamese women became "standard operating procedure," it may not be possible to reach any decisive conclusions about such motivating factors. To the extent that we must rely on representations of rape provided primarily by American soldiers, we must instead direct our questions to the ways in which rape has been represented during and since the war. How are images of rape in the Vietnam war presented in contemporary U.S. dominant culture? Moreover, why were these acts allowed to remain virtually unreported and unprosecuted? Ultimately, there may be a link between the ways in which rape in Vietnam was and continues to be represented and the fact that despite its rampancy, it has received little critical attention by either the media or the military.

In Vietnam, according to Jacqueline E. Lawson, "[r]aping a Vietnamese woman became a hallmark of the guerrilla phase of the war." In her article entitled, "'She's a pretty woman... for a gook': The Misogyny of the Vietnam War," Lawson explains that for "young American males intent on asserting their superiority, their potency, their manhood, (and by extension their country's)... raping a woman in a combat zone is something a man 'has' to do, 'needs' to do, has the 'right' to do."8 The persistent practice of rape in war is evocative of the misogyny of war as an extension of masculine hegemony. Lawson is very explicit on this last point: "War does not create misogynists (nor rapists)." Rather, a "predisposition to misogyny, expressed explicitly though by no means exclusively in acts of violence against women, is build into the very fabric of American culture."9 In short, "[r]ape is a part of war because rape is a part of male-centered culture."10 Lawson perceives rape as an outcome of a masculine dominated gender system; rape is more a violent than a sexual crime against women.

Lawson's critical analysis of rape, however, contrasts sharply with how rape is most often depicted in the numerous films and novels about the war. Based on the stories and narratives of American GIs in Vietnam, these representations suggest that rape in Vietnam "reared its head as a way to relieve boredom as American GIs searched and destroyed in the highlands of Vietnam."11 For instance, after being denied access to the brothels off base, Sergeant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) in Casualties of War (1989) informs his squad for an 'R&R'. "We're going to requisition us a girl to break up the boredom and keep up morale," Meserve explains.

Significantly, rapes of Vietnamese women by American soldiers in contemporary films, such as Casualties of War and Platoon (1986), novels such as Larry Heinemann's National Book Award winner Paco's Story, and the narratives of American GIs in Mark Baker's Nam, strongly emphasize sex as a motivating factor. Talk of "R&R," "having a little fun," and "needing a turn-on" is common in such rape scenes. While these representations of rape are unquestionably violent, the motivation provided by the narratives noticeably highlights the sexual. In other words, the line between sex and violence becomes blurred in these popular, dominant culture portrayals of the Vietnam war and its atrocities.

This blurring of sex and violence has everything to do with the source and the context of these images of rape and the way in which they are mediated for cultural consumption. The raping of Vietnamese women by American men is not described by the victims, who more often than not were murdered. Neither women nor the Vietnamese are at the center of these representations.12 Instead, American men (and predominantly white American men) and masculine hegemonic culture become both the source and the producing medium through which rape is re-presented. Whether we examine Casualties of War (based on the book by Daniel Lang, directed by Brian DePalma), or Paco's Story (a novel by Larry Heinemann who was a combat infantryman in Vietnam), the rapes on which both of these cultural productions turn are represented from the points of view of white American males.

When discussing modes of representation, in this case of rape in the Vietnam war, it is important to be clear about the notion of representation itself. Most simply, representation is a copy of the "real," the "absence of presence."13 Because what is "real" is therefore never wholly present to us--the viewers and readers--we must be aware of the ways in which the "real" is mediated through representational practices, as film or literature. As Michael Shapiro points out in The Politics of Representation, "we lose something when we think of representation as mimetic. What we lose, in general, is insight into the institutions, actions and episodes through which the real has been fashioned..."14 This fashioning, he goes on to explain, is a historically and culturally developed "imposition" which is "largely institutionalized in the prevailing kinds of meanings deeply inscribed on things, persons, and structures."15

Consideration of the medium or practice through which rape is represented is vital to any discussion of how rape is perceived and treated. In examining rape as it is represented in contemporary U.S. dominant culture, most often through the experiences of white male filmmakers, writers, or veterans, it is important to keep in mind that these representations are likely to have the effect of "reproducing or reinforcing the prevailing modes of power."16 To the extent that hegemonic culture in the U.S. reflects a masculine dominated gender system, culturally produced representations will reinforce this structure.

Let's examine some specific representations of rape during the Vietnam war, made available in the context of contemporary U.S. dominant culture. Their commonality is this context as well as the point of view of white American men on whose experience these stories are centered. Casualties of War was adapted from Lang's 1969 account of an actual incident of GI gang rape in Vietnam. On patrol in the Central Highlands in 1966, a squad of five men chart out a detour to a small Vietnamese village with the intent of kidnapping a young Vietnamese woman. Their motive, precipitated by being denied access to the brothels the night before, is clearly portrayed as sexual gratification, or in the words of patrol leader Sergeant Meserve, "a little portable 'R&R' for the men." The woman that they take, as she lies sleeping next to her sister, is picked out because she is "the pretty one." She is not termed a "VC whore" until after one of the men, Private Sven Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) questions the patrol's kidnapping and ruthless treatment of her. Although she is treated brutally--tied, gagged, dragged, punched, and thrown--by the GIs from the time she is taken until she is murdered, she is also portrayed as a sexual object: "We're going to have a little fun with her." After raping her, the Sergeant is asked by one of the other men, "When was the last time you had a real woman, Sarge?" Meserve responds, "She was real, I think she was real." The gang rape in Casualties of War is not depicted solely as an act of violence against the enemy, nor entirely as an act of power and subjugation by white men over a Vietnamese woman. While violence and subjugation as forms of racism and sexism are certainly conveyed in the images surrounding the rape, male sexual desire--sex for the sake of sex--is an equally important motivation in this film representation of rape. In a dramatic buildup to the rape, Meserve underscores this sexual intent by holding his gun high and shouting, "The army calls this a weapon, but it ain't!" He then recites the familiar

This is my weapon [hoisting his gun over his head]
This is my gun [grabbing his crotch]
This is for fighting,
This is for fun.

The verbal lashings directed at GIs who either refuse to participate or who interfere with a gang rape provide further illustration of the significance given to sexuality (as opposed to gender or race) in representation of rape. In Casualties of War, the young "cherry," Erikkson is portrayed as the "hero" and protagonist of the film. Erikkson protests the kidnapping, tries to stop the rape, and refuses to participate in it. He is taunted, called a "queer," a homosexual, a "faggot," and a "VC sympathizer" by the other men. In Oliver Stone's 1986 Academy Award winning Platoon, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) comes upon a gang rape in the bushes after a nearby village has been torched. As he physically interferes to stop it the men yell, "What are you, a homosexual, Taylor?" The implication is that if a man is unwilling to rape a woman, he must be gay is indicative--this is indicative of the way in which sexuality is centered in such representations of rape. Although the justification for rape in war is often presented as racist ("she's a 'dink,' man"--from Platoon), or misogynist ("she's a VC whore"--from Casualties of War), the primary (though not the only) motivation is most often presented as sexual gratification.17

In Heinemann's novel, Paco's Story, however, it is revenge that is presented as the catalyst for the horrific, brutal rape of a Vietnamese sniper who kills two American soldiers on a night watch just before dawn. This rape is clearly motivated by violent and vengeful anger towards the young Viet Cong woman:

and finally Gallagher had had enough. The next thing you know, James, he had her by the hair and was swearing up a storm, hauling her this way and that (the spit bubbles at the corners of his mouth slurring his words) through the company to this brick-and-stucco hooch... Gallagher waltzes her into the room at the side, no doubt a bedroom.18

The context within which this rape scene is drawn also includes a particularly racist description of the rape victim:

A peasant girl, not more than fourteen, say, or sixteen. She was not beefy though. None of the Viets were big... But who knows maybe Viets enjoyed being gaunt and rickety, rheumy and toothless. Maybe.19

However, despite the racist and misogynist brutality with which this vicious rape is depicted, it is not portrayed absent of male sexual desire. Following a particularly horrifying description of how the sniper is bound and strung up so tightly she is forced to bend her body over a wooden plank, the men who are lining up to rape her are portrayed this way:

Gallagher and Jonesy started to grin and wanted to laugh, and a couple of dudes did laugh, because no one in the company had had any pussy for a month of Sundays (except for Lieutenant Stennet, who hadn't been in this man's army that long).20

Even in this most inhumane depiction of rape in Vietnam, male sexuality is included among the motivating factors. In this regard, rape is largely represented to be at least in part a sexual act as well as a violent crime against women or against the enemy. In short, there seems to be little distinction drawn between sex and violence in culturally produced representations of rape. Not coincidentally these images of rape in the Vietnam war mirror statements from GIs that were given during the Winter Soldier Investigation in 1971. According to Sergeant Michael McClusker:

They were supposed to go after what they called a Viet Cong whore. They went into the village and instead of capturing her, they raped her--every man raped her. As a matter of fact one man said to me later that it was the first time he had ever made love to a woman with his boots on... But at any rate, they raped the girl, and then, the last man to make love to her shot her in the head.21

Quite apparently, there is some confusion here as to the nature of rape. From this masculinist viewpoint, rape is equivalent to "making love." The line between sex and violence is made to seem very unclear in depictions like these. From Mark Baker's Nam:

A gun is power. To some people carrying a gun constantly was like having a permanent hard on. It was a pure sexual trip every time you got to pull the trigger.22

This conflation of sex and violence is disturbing on a number of levels. It is particularly troubling, however, when considering the consequences of presenting rape as a sexual, as well as a violent act. To the extent that little distinction is drawn between sex and violence, the rape of Vietnamese women (as well as American women) represented through these portrayals of war can be considered a "natural" outcome when men are isolated from women for extended periods of time.

You take a group of men and put them in a place where there are no round-eyed women. They are in an all-male environment. Let's face it. Nature is nature. There are women available. Those women are of another culture, another color, another society. You don't want a prostitute. You've got an M-16. What do you need to pay for a lady for? You go down to the village and you take what you want.23

This explanation for the rampancy of rape during the Vietnam war is indicative of the reluctance on the part of the media as well as the military to report and prosecute these war crimes. This notion that rape is sexually motivated and therefore the logical outcome of male sexual desire, plays directly into myths that rape is spontaneous and victim-precipitated. These beliefs may not carry as much weight in war, where the question of what the victim wants is moot and where rape is standard operating procedure; however, in continuing to shape the overall conception of rape, these myths help to explain why rape in Vietnam during the war (as in the civilian U.S.) was so rarely reported or investigated and conviction rates were so low. Ultimately these representations of rape as the consequence of uncontrolled male sexual desire lead directly back to the simplistic justification: "boys will be boys." After all, how can the military hold men accountable when they are merely acting out the very masculine roles that they have been socialized to play?

Returning briefly to Jacqueline Lawson's analysis of rape as misogynist, it is important to point out that to the extent that she, too, relies on depictions of rape as represented by Vietnam veterans, she comes dangerously close to conflating sex and violence. Although I have argued that her conception of rape seems to turn on violence and not sexuality, it is not totally clear that this is the case. In questioning the popular perception that the proliferation of violent acts against women during the Vietnam war are exclusively a consequence of the evils of war, Lawson writes: "This comforting but seductive view ignores the very real links between sex and violence that exist in our culture, links which help make war possible."24 While her intention is to explain rape in wartime Vietnam as a product of the systematic oppression of women in American society, Lawson does so by collapsing male lust with power and by extension, with misogyny.25

The conflation of sex and violence, reflective of the depictions of rape provided by American soldiers, grows out of a failure to distinguish sexuality from gender.26 The misogyny and devaluation of women which inform our cultural codes are reflective of a masculine dominated gender system. These attitudes toward women are not a product of essential or biological differences between men and women. Nor is misogyny an extension of male desire. Rather, they are generated by the socially and culturally constructed gendered patterns that dictate men's and women's lives. We have only to look as far as gay and lesbian produced images of sexual desire to see that gender is not determinate of sexuality. Hence, acts of violence against women must be understood not as sexual crimes but as gendered crimes. We need to desexualize rape so that it can be seen for what it is: a tragic consequence of political, economic, and social processes that generate and maintain domination over women in every cultural domain.

To this end, representations of rape must be reconstructed, not to reproduce or reinforce prevailing modes of power, but to challenge them. The current portrayals of the Vietnam war are mediated through dominant culture and largely centered on the experiences and perceptions of white American men. From Oliver Stone's and Larry Heinemann's cinematic and literary productions based on their own experiences, to the depictions based on accounts of veterans who were there, these representations fail to contest the conception of rape as sexually motivated behavior.

If we are to move forward in understanding rape as a criminal behavior and prosecuting it as such, then we have to represent it for what it is: a violent, gender motivated crime, a crime against women because they are women. To the extent that representations of rape conform to dominant modes of power, they must be contested. The consequences of not challenging these current representations of rape are great. Women will continue to live in fear, and will continue to be held accountable for the crimes against them. Many rapes will continue to go unreported and the prosecution and conviction rates for those that are will continue to be disproportionately low. On the other side, sexuality and desire will remain mired in repression and female sexual desire will be denied and made invisible. As long as violence is linked to sexuality in representations of rape, the realm of sexual desire and its representations will also be distorted and misunderstood.


1 Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster) 1975: 31.

2 Ibid.: 110.

3 Ibid.: 104-105.

4 Ibid.: 110.

5 Ibid.: 32.

6 Ibid.: 99.

7 Ibid.: 101.

8 Jacqueline E. Lawson, "'She's a pretty woman... for a gook': The Misogyny of the Vietnam War," in Philip K. Jason, ed., Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to the Literature of the Vietnam War (University of Iowa Press) 1991: 17.

9 Ibid.: 4.

10 Ibid.: 18.

11 Brownmiller: 32.

12 I want to acknowledge Susan Jeffords for this insight about who occupies the center of these representations of rape. Her article in Discourse, "Performative Masculinities, or 'After a few times you won't be afraid of rape at all,'" discusses this in depth.

13 Michael J. Shapiro, The Politics of Representation (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) 1988: xii.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 David Rabe, screenwriter, Casualties of War (Columbia Pictures) 1989.

18 This distinction drawn between justification and motivation for rape in this context is not meant to be hard and fast. I have observed this distinction in the films discussed here. However, I believe that most often, like the line between sex and violence, the line between what is motivation and what is justification are blurred. Racism, for instance, is often articulated as a motivating factor for rape in war.

19 Larry Heinemann, Paco's Story (New York: Penguin) 1986: 175.

20 Ibid.: 179.

21 Ibid.: 180.

22 Brownmiller: 110. Emphasis mine.

23 Mark Baker, Nam (New York: William Morrow) 1981: 206. Emphasis mine.

24 Ibid. Emphasis mine.

25 Lawson: 3. Emphasis mine.

26 Ibid.

27 This distinction between sexuality and gender is one I have explored more fully in a paper on representations of female heterosexual desire. It is an important distinction in gay and lesbian theory as well. See Gail Rubin, "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality," in Carol S. Vance, ed., Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul) 1984; and also Teresa de Lauretis, "Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation," in Theater Journal (May 1988).

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