Why Is Rape Common in War?

Chapter six of Josh Goldstein’s War and Gender contains a large section on rape in war, which got me thinking about my tours in Iraq.

The US occupation of Iraq saw its share of war crimes. However, as far as I can tell, rape as a war crime seemed to be virtually absent. (This case of premeditated rape and murder in Mahmudiyah seems to be an exception).

That’s interesting in its own right. But what really sparked my curiosity was the emphasis on rape as a weapon of war in my human rights and humanitarian affairs classes in grad school. More than one instructor or guest speaker treated the prevalence of rape in war as a given. This struck me as odd: I didn’t see the military utility in rape–after all, the military goal is victory over one’s enemy, which is best achieved by killing or threatening to kill the opposing armed force. One instructor seemed quite put off when I asked her to explain why rape was so common in contemporary conflicts.

War objectives seem to be the bulk of the answer. Systematic rape makes more sense as a method of ethnic cleansing (either by breeding out an unwanted ethnicity or by destroying a society’s will to remain in its rightful home) than it does as a method of defeating an enemy army.

But even this fails to explain why there weren’t more rapes of opportunity (that I was aware of) in Iraq. This probably had to do with the relative discipline of the US military, the omnipresence of command supervision, and the lack of safe havens outside of US military compounds. Servicemembers would rarely have had the opportunity outside the wire to rape locals unless their unit was in complicity.

Then it occurred to me that, given the lack of opportunity outside the wire, it was far easier to rape inside the wire–against fellow servicemembers. I lacked the frame of reference to pick up on this right away because as a man in the military, rape wasn’t a daily consideration for me (although most sexual assault victims in the US military are male, women are disproportionally targeted).

On an unrelated note, I’m more than halfway through Judith Hand’s Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace. Although Hand is a Ph.D. in biology from UCLA in animal behavior and primatology, the first half of her book doesn’t take a very rigorous scientific approach to the biology of war. But I’ll reserve my final judgment until I read the second half.


  1. […] said, my experience suggests that rape is not a necessary consequence of war. Elisabeth Wood, professor of political […]

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