For women, there are no ‘just wars’

By — August 8, 2012

No one wants to go to war. Before we commit soldiers and societies to inevitable sacrifice and atrocities, we try to balance the inevitable harm against the potential good. We seek to make the wars we undertake “just” by applying defined criteria to a scale of moral weights and principled measures. Men are tortured and die, women are raped and murdered, children suffer and starve.

When the war is over, we consider how well we did using actual tallies, not philosophical ones, then measure what was important in our assessment. The cataloguing includes deaths, suicides, executions, number of soldiers, types of soldiers, and more. It does not traditionally include “number of women and children sexually assaulted” or “number of women and children sexually tortured” or “number of women and children raped to death.”  

We measure what we think is important. Rape hasn’t usually made the cut.  

This is unjust. It is why war must be redefined in ways that upend conventional, gendered wisdom.  

A good place to start is, arguably, with “just war” theory (or theories). “Just war” theory is the most influential philosophical framework for when and how to conduct war. Despite the theory’s prohibition of “atrocities” such as mass rape, it is probable, given what we have come to document in the 20th century, that most putatively “just” wars to date included the uncounted mass rape of women. This should be no surprise considering that the theory was created and developed by men in Greek, Roman, and early Catholic times consumed with misogynistic ideas about women’s inherent baseness, craven sexuality, lack of moral agency, infantile intellect, animal essence, and close proximity to Satan. First and foremost, women were understood as soulless, animated containers for male seed. Those are powerful ideas with long legacies. Similar concepts have led to the perception among raping soldiers that women are no more than envelopes for sperm meant to pass along messages of dominance.

Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting “Guernica,” which was inspired by the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

The realization that the rape of women and children during wartime is considered insignificant and not worth measuring supports the idea that the concept of a “just war” is a logical fallacy. It is, in the end, what appears to be a moral framework for immoral inhumanity and obscenity. A questionable idea at best. Especially when you challenge the gendered norms it relies on to evaluate what is “morally” palatable.  

Rape is thought to be natural and expected. Soldiers raping have long been considered unremarkable. Rape is even, to many, considered an honorable alternative. After WWII, women in Königsberg, Germany, raped and sexually tortured en masse by Russian soldiers, reportedly pleaded with their rapists to kill them. The Red Army men were insulted and considered this option dishonorable: “Russian soldiers do not shoot women,” they replied. “Only German soldiers do that.”

World War II has been called our last undisputed “just war.” This means that half a dozen moral criteria were met in the engagement, conduct, and peace negotiations ending the conflict. That at least partially explains why, when our forces were victorious in the European theater, we praised our Russian allies and celebrated their entry into Berlin, where they raped and mutilated “every German female from 8 to 80,” according to historian Antony Beevor. Some estimates of women raped by Russian soldiers range from more than 100,000 to as high as 2 million. This was not a WWII fact taught in any school I attended or represented in any war movie I’ve seen. I could not find this in any statistical tally of the costs of wars.  

We are only now growing accustomed to thinking about and talking openly about rape in combat, in places like Darfur and Bosnia. But, we know rape is as old as war—it’s just that now we are documenting it and saying it is wrong. Consider that in many wars defined as “just,” women and girls (as well as boys) have undoubtedly been conscripted through rape. Here is (trigger warning) a description from The New York Times of events that took place during the Spanish Civil War, during which Catholic Bishops—perhaps not shockingly—invoked Crusade language to identify it as “just”:

Tens of thousands of women had their heads shaved and were force-fed castor oil (a powerful laxative), then jeered as they were paraded through the streets soiling themselves. Many had their breasts branded with the Falangist symbol of yoke and arrows. In Toledo, a United Press correspondent reported, Franco’s soldiers shot more than 20 pregnant women from a maternity hospital. Much larger all-female groups were executed elsewhere. Troops marched through one town waving rifles adorned with the underwear of women they had raped and murdered. "It is necessary to spread terror," one of Franco’s senior generals declared. "We have to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do."

In case it’s not clear: The point of weighing what is “just” is to engage only in winnable wars, to be proportional in response to threats, minimize casualties, and find the quickest, surest way to peace. As an alternative to straightforward killing and by demoralizing the enemy and discouraging future hostilities, rape can, in a perverse way, help in those terms. But this solution, rape in lieu of more deaths, as a culturally acceptable “proportional response,” makes no sense. It never did.

Men have died in so-called just wars by the millions. It is hard to verify exactly how many died in WWII. But estimates speculate that somewhere between 50 to 70 million died. Of these, fully two-thirds are estimated to have been “noncombatants” in “just war” parlance. There are no standardly included estimates of women raped, brutalized, and murdered through sexualized torture. How on earth does anyone attempt to weigh justice without this complete context? How do we enter wars without consideration of the roles women play before, during, and after—as replacement laborers, as the literal “producers” of soldiers, as unwilling conscripts when raped? Even in the obvious cases of mass rape, women and their families do not receive reparations like those of men injured and killed in battle. Women who are raped are not recognized; those who die are not given posthumous decorations for their sacrifices. Considering what we know of women’s experiences (before recently, ignored, not spoken of, dismissed, and marginalized), how do we justify the continued “just war” pretense that women are not centrally involved?  

Now, you do have to begin with the fact that the progenitors of “just war” theories were living in vastly different times. But, once you’ve dismissed that, you are left with the fact that the theory cultivates the myth that war is a narrowly defined, entirely male business. Even though we know it’s not. And yet, war theories ignore the inherent bias in the definition of terms such as “proportional,” “combatant,” “weapons,” “hostilities,” “peace,” and more. Where are the moral imperatives related to women in “just war” theories? 

The gender bias feeds a truism. Why does it matter, right? Men make up 97 percent of all military forces. They are our traditional combatants. They sacrifice bodily integrity, autonomy, and more on society’s behalf. We have no analogous system of thought defining what is a just and reasonable sacrifice for girls and women. We have a tally of male casualties, even if the numbers seem obscene. But, rape? Bodily violations with guns and knives and broken glass? No. There are no thresholds. If women dominated culture we’d have fewer theories of war, but instead maybe “just theories” of pregnancy, for example. Just a thought.  

For women in militarized zones, rape, especially planned, mass rape, is violent and hostile. For women, there is no legitimized measure of “proportional response.” For women during war, all men are potential weapons. For women, the distinction between combatant and non-combatant is irrelevant. For women, “peacetime” is conflict. For women, home is often a front line.

The roles of women in war—as necessary replacement workers for male soldiers, as the literal “producers” of soldiers, as the bodily protectors of a society’s honor, as unwilling “civilians” engaged in war, as targets for rape—do not enter the core of the “just war” equation. “Just war” theories assume, for the most part, that women are not integrally involved in warfare, are not bodily engaged. They are not combatants, we insist. And combatants—their actions, their weapons, and their deaths and retribution for their deaths—are central to understanding what is ultimately “just.”

“Just war” theory addresses women when it states that atrocities against civilians, like mass rape, are forbidden. Small comfort for women in a militarized pinch.

So, let’s try a thought experiment here.

1. Pretend for a moment that women become “combatants” by virtue of men weaponizing their bodies and by commanders using their bodies strategically. This has implications for the disproportional and “evil” use of weapons—both of which have measureable, referenced criteria in “just war” theories.

2. Imagine that the use of rape in war is a rational way to minimize casualties and ensure through demoralization and terror that peace is more durable. Although a perversion of what we may think is right, just, or moral, the fact remains that, in the traditional conventions of a “just war,” soldiers and leaders might come to think this is the case.

3. Now, picture “peacetime” in “just war” terms. If peacetime is defined by a cessation of hostilities based on the agreement of male leaders who, until very recently in human history, failed to consider rape as a legitimate “hostility,” then there is no peacetime for women who continue to be raped long after. Statistics have even shown that local rates of civilian rape can increase dramatically in the aftermath of conflict-related sexualized violence. Peacetime, gendered in this way, is a corrupt term.

These considerations fundamentally change the equation.

This is a theory of war that we still depend on in international relations, policy, and statecraft, as abundantly evidenced by current debates over drones and their place in “just war.” The fear about drones, of course, is that they are dehumanized, unthinking weapons. It seems to me that this is the very definition of a man who participates in mass rapes and related sexualized atrocities during war.  

We need to redefine our terms. We need to realize that for women, and hence for humanity, there can be no “just wars.”

Soraya Chemaly is a feminist critic whose writing focuses on the role of gender in politics, religion, and the media. Her work is regularly published in The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, Alternet, The Feminist Wire, and other online media. She has appeared as a featured guest on PRN, Sirius Radio, and National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation." Follow her on Twitter at @schemaly.