James Carroll

Sex, wars, and videos

By James Carroll
January 10, 2011

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SOME YEARS ago I was reunited with a boyhood friend who told me he had served in Vietnam — not one tour, but three. When he described some of the horrendous combat experiences he had, I asked why he repeatedly volunteered to go back? He replied cautiously, “Do you want the real answer?’’ Sure, I said, even as his tone put me on alert. “I went back for the sex,’’ he said. “All the sex I could want. Best sex I ever had.’’

There is a link between war and sex that is hard to discuss. While my friend’s frank admission exposed that link, I am sure it also set him apart. However ubiquitous the opportunities in a war zone rife with desperate young women selling themselves to survive, sex was not a main motivator for most Americans in that war. Yet every war involves a destruction of norms, which is why the military ethos emphatically upholds ideals of honor, even in the stress of battle. But that such standards need to be emphasized suggests how readily war upends them. Fighting and fornicating can open to one another. The furies of combat and erotic ecstasy can be alike in providing an escape from the banalities of mundane existence. And, especially, warriors are by definition in the business of dominance, and sex paired with brute force may be the most domineering imposition of all — an expression less of lust than of power.

This is the larger context within which to reflect upon recent news events. A US aircraft carrier commander is relieved of duty for having sponsored a puerile video featuring anti-gay slurs and sexually suggestive denigrations of women. Thousands of Pentagon workers are under investigation for downloading pornographic images of children. The US Congress finds it necessary to strengthen the law against sexual harassment of women in the American military. The just-concluded debate over “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ lays bare residual military uneasiness about sexual identity, especially among Marines. Homosexual panic lives in the Corps.

Meanwhile, unresolved questions about US complicity in torture of terror suspects include issues of sexual sadism, which can involve women as perpetrators. Think Abu Ghraib. And abroad, truly disturbing reports from Congo about many thousands of women being sexually assaulted as a matter of routine are a stark reminder of the perennial uses of rape as the ultimate violation. Sexual humiliation is a weapon of war. War itself, in other words, is a kind of rape.

Civilization straddles this contradiction: War is deemed to be necessary for the sake of human values, yet it destroys human values. That contradiction shows up in traditional methods of military training which, until recently, openly featured macho clichés of, say, the cadence call (“I don’t know, but I’ve been told. . .’’). Anti-gay and anti-female slurs were an accepted mode of the breaking of individual personality taken to be essential to the creation of battle order unit cohesion. Sexual insult was a tool in every drill sergeant’s kit. At command levels, the honorable but practical men in ultimate authority did not so much attempt to suppress the sexual restlessness of the young, but to channel it. Hence the taken-for-granted sexual bravado of the brothel, condoms from the quartermaster, the license of the weekend pass — and its cry, “Rings off!’’

But all that looked different once women arrived as equals in uniform. Even the code of honor that the warrior culture erects against brute violence can itself be dehumanizing. Thus, the classic Western virtue of chivalry obliges the male fighter to protect the female non-combatant, but it does so by promulgating an unjust ranking by gender. The profoundly humane Geneva Accords, for example, mandate that “women shall be treated with all the regard due to their sex.’’ The standard, of course, should be “ . . .all the regard due to their status as persons.’’ The opposite of male chauvinism is gender equality, not the female pedestal. Indeed, that pedestal has proven again and again to be the most dangerous place a woman can be.

Traditions attached to martial culture are being challenged from many sides. Species survival is suddenly at issue. But so are structures of identity — female and male. If grotesque sexual violence is to be forbidden, so must be war.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.