Last year, Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers hit the movie theaters around Veterans' Day. The advent of yet another war movie prompted me to write the following piece. I'd like to reprint it — not just this Veterans' Day, but on every successive one — as a tribute to those that the wars of mankind leave out of our memories. I would like to make the reprinting of this a tradition.
JUST IN TIME FOR VETERANS' DAY, I notice Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers coming out, yet another movie glorifying war and the men who make it. Just the previews indicate its 'John Wayne/war hero' slant: "More Congressional Medals of Honor…" blares the overvoice, as The Sacred Flag (Iwo Jima style) is raised. One reviewer (Dargis, "Ghastly Conflagration," NewYork Times, Oct. 20, 2006) writes: "It seems hard to believe there is anything left to be said about WWII that has not already been stated and restated, chewed, digested…."
Dargis's remark is so wrong, so off-base, no narrowly patriarchal, that I don't know quite how to begin to refute it. I will start by saying that 99% of 'war stories' have never been told: those of the women ravaged by the conflicts men create. Dargis finds Eastwood's movie full of the graphic 'horror' of war. The raped/prostituted women of war are its true 'horror.' Of the thousands of war movies, how many 'honor' and 'remember' their suffering.
As a rape and military prostitution survivor, I am always uneasy on Veterans' Day, and Memorial Day, because these two American holidays celebrate the ability of men to make war and the courage of the soldier and how glorious all this is for his manhood, etc. I remember that all of the year 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII, was like one long Veterans'/Memorial Day in the U.S., with endless articles and TV shows and movies devoted to the nobility of the soldier and the magnificence of the wars he makes. The entire year, I only saw two mentions of the effect of WWII on women: some attention paid to the Korean Comfort Women, but only as if they were the 'big' exception — no mention that what happened to them (being raped 30-50 times a day in military brothels) has been the 'norm' for countless vulnerable and beleaguered women and girls caught in the sexual line of fire during wartime. And one mention of German girls raped by the Russians and then scorned as whores by their own men. The article (in The Nation) called them 'forgotten victims,' but failed to mention that they were just a small slice of countless other ignored women and girls whose wartime sexual plight means nothing to governments and news reporters. In fact, the article gave the misleading idea that the German girls, too, were some kind of exception.
The 'silence' of all these women is partly due to lack of journalistic/historical attention to their experiences. But it is also due to 'shame,' the male term for the raped body, and how a woman is supposed to feel, after violation. In this way, women also collude in their own voicelessness, by buying into male notions of 'virginity/purity' on the one hand and 'uncleanliness/filth/ruin' on the other. How else explain, I wonder, the complete lack of stories by women raped before, during, and after WWII by the war machines of all militaries? Only one group has come forth: the Korean Comfort Women. Where are the voices of the others? Where are, for example, the voices of the French girls, those still left alive, who were the object of extensive rape sprees by their American GI 'liberators'? What about the Italian girls heavily raped by Allied soldiers of all nationalities?
In addition to not coming forward, women are partly responsible in other ways for the vast silence that surrounds wartime sexual savagery. One example: certain Japanese feminists recognize the existence of the Korean Comfort Women, and have apologized on behalf of their men, and their government. (Source: War's Dirty Secrets, by Anne Llewellyn Barstow.) But these same feminists ignore their own sisters, Occupation Comfort Girls, handed out to American GI's and to Australian and British soldiers in Tokyo at the end of WWII. Truckloads of them, given to appease the conquerors. War-ravaged already, by the destruction of their homes and families. Now raped, sometimes into unconsciousness, by the 'entitled' soldiers, who must have girls' bodies as rewards. A noble soldierly deed, the virile rape of the conquered.
It is puzzling that MacArthur did nothing to halt the sexual carnage in Tokyo . The Japanese offered him a 'comfort girl.' He turned down this 'gift,' presumably because it would not look right for a general to take a sex slave, yet he did nothing to stop the setting up of brothels (euphemistically called 'comfort stations' — I would label them 'rape stations') for his men. The RAA (Recreation and Amusement Association), a joint effort of the Japanese and American authorities, forced girls (many of them teenage virgins, homeless and helpless) into the Rape Centers (my phrase for the places). Men bought 'tickets,' to make it all legitimate — after all, if you pay it can never be rape, right?
It was 'amusement' for the men. 'Recreation.' What was if for the girls? Pain and indescribable suffering. How their bodies, particularly those of the virgins, survived the constant assaults, without bleeding to death, is beyond me. I have a rape obsession — I admit to it, and a size obsession — since my own body was so heavily torn up by Caucasian and black soldiers when I was a prostitute. I live everyday from the perspective of a gang-raped body. It is my vision of the world. It is a rare one, in terms of writers, apparently, since I find few others putting their rapes on the page. (I do so with fear and with much cultural imposition of shame, but I am fighting to write in spite of the barriers that tell me to be quiet.) So my whole perspective on WWII is quite different from that of the historians. I do want to know the 'facts,' those kept hidden until recently — like how many times were the Japanese comfort girls raped a day by the Americans (on an average they each 'processed' 15 men a day — that was the military's phrase for this activity — 'processing' GI bodies — the girls were regarded as assembly-line 'equipment'). But — and this separates me startlingly from the historians—I want to know what it felt like, for the girl — since I know what rape felt like for me. My historical questions are of this sort: I wonder how these tiny Asians withstood multiple rapes everyday by all these Caucasian men? How did their minds withstand it? The Korean Comfort Women report that some of the girls went insane. Most of my material on the Occupation Comfort Girls comes from historian Yuki Tanaka and he reports that one girl was forced 60 times a day. I want to know how she was even alive after so much rape? I want to know if she was even still conscious at the end of her 'processing' quota for the day?
I also wonder that the men did not see the pain in the girls' faces and the bleeding, torn genitals. Why did this not stop them? This is my history. The one no one tells. It is a history of shame and embarrassment. I have found it enormously difficult to come forward and reveal what happened to my own body. I have hidden it from myself for decades. Now that I have faced it by putting it in words, I die every day from fear that it will happen again. After all, I am breaking a silence imposed on the prostituted by the most powerful entity in the world — the military. Will I be punished terribly — with more rape—for daring to speak?
Tanaka's book on the comfort women shows a photograph of huge numbers of American sailors, a happy, grinning crowd, jostling together, waiting to enter a comfort station. I wonder if the girls inside were vomiting from fear, and peeing from fear, as they heard the coarse noises of the eager men at play, waiting their turn to buy a rape ticket.
Why didn't MacArthur stop them? If he had — if he had instituted a policy of setting up food centers for the girls, instead of rape centers, history would be very different for our fragile female bodies. Instead of a bunch of rapists, the military could have fostered soldiers as protectors. Men to make the girls feel safe, not girls dying from fear and sexual brutality.
We would celebrate our Veterans' and Memorial Days very differently if a policy of 'never rape, always help and nurture those poor, starving prostituted girls' were the norm. Just think of all the grateful, starving girls in other wars — Korea, Vietnam — who would have benefited from such a policy, one of humane commonsense. Just think of the monuments we could make to this true picture of soldierly honor and nobility. Not the fake one we now praise.
A first step is awareness. Celebrate the raped on Veterans' Day. Build monuments to them. Tell their stories. Where are those stories, I keep asking? Where is the Japanese girl that 60 American soldiers a day laid down on, and split in two, with pain (hers), pleasure (theirs)? If she is not dead from physical abuse or mental insanity (rape by one man can cause severe psychological disturbance — how do we measure the impact of 60 a day?) — if she is not dead, why doesn't she tell her story? She is a part of American history, and Veterans' Day, since American soldiers raped her.
Yet I know that it takes courage to come forth. The former 'whore' is heavily despised. As an ex-prostitute, I've experienced this first hand.
It was excruciating, the year 2005, to my own raped body, as if the whole year stamped into me, underscored, how little what happened to me mattered to the men of the world, and the wars they make.
How much WWII footage was shot of the raped? Did anyone bother to go into the Dachau brothels and film where girls, barely into their adolescence, were raped? Did any journalists mention that starving Jewish girls were brothelized by their own men in the Warsaw Ghetto? No. Rape of the Jewish women was not even mentioned at Nuremberg — not considered a war crime, since, after all, it's just women being screwed, and only the soldier matters. And the male. All we see of post-concentration camp footage is the skinny, skeletal males. Why didn't the photo-journalists consider the suffering of the Jewish women worthy of note? Very puzzling.
Only once, in all of the thousands of hours of WWII footage endlessly spewed out by male-dominated stations, like the History Channel, have I glimpsed a raped being. A European girl, maybe 18, with long blonde hair all tumbling over her face, and that face was twisted in an agony of unbearable invaded pain. The camera gave us only 2 seconds, but the glimpse into the hell that was her mind, her body, her soul, haunts me.
I focus on the American soldiers (from all wars) a great deal because they are my men, and I care about them, care about what they do the women of the world. How they treat them is how they will treat me. If a man rapes in Iraq, he may come home and rape me. If a GI buys a fifteen-year-old in Bangkok, he might come home and buy a child here. But I know that other militaries are even more savage in their treatment of women. My men are practically saints compared to, say, the Japanese soldiers in Nanking . There, in that famous microcosm of war atrocity, the men ripped open the vaginas of pre-teen girls with bayonets, so they could rape them more easily. There is an account of an eleven-year-old girl, tied up and raped continuously, her ruptured, swollen, bleeding genitals terrible to look at, until she died. There are accounts of girls who could not walk for weeks, so severe were the gang rapes. As many as 100,000 females may have been raped — children, girls, women, even older ones, in their eighties, many of whom bled to death, because of their thin vaginal tissue. The Japanese soldiers also impaled vaginas on pitchforks, beer bottles, brooms — for fun. Girls lay in the streets, naked, their genitals stretched open by objects. And then the soldiers took pictures, for their photo albums. I wonder if they showed them to their wives and girlfriends back home? (Source for Nanking material: Iris Chang.) Where are the memorials for the women of Nanking?
And I know that compared to the savagery of the Serbs in Bosnia and the Pakistani men in Bangladesh, my own soldiers deserve to be crowned with laurel leaves of good behavior. At least when they rape, they do it more gently.
We definitely need to stop celebrating the ability of men to make war. Our movies, particularly, need to call a cease fire. Hollywood continues to worship the John Wayne version of war in such sentimental, hypocritical slosh as The Last Samurai — nothing but one long paean to the male's violent, savage Homeric battle endeavors (albeit Japanese style). I think I've only seen one epic come of Hollywood that actually tried to celebrate peace — Kevin Costner's The Postman. Interesting, the critics panned this movie, with its gentle message, and highly praised the mediocre, battle-footage-ridden Last Samurai.
Instead of spending millions on more male-made war movies, we need memorials all over the world to the women and girls and children that the soldiers ravage and destroy, either through rape, or killing them, or forcing them into starvation prostitution. Men have a choice. They can refuse to go to war. Women who accidentally become 'collateral damage,' sexual and otherwise, during wartime, don't have that choice. It's not my battle, this masculine activity. I am a soft, feminine woman. And I don't make war. But we women are terribly damaged because you men place us in your line of fire. If men want to continue creating these savage conflicts, and then celebrating their ability to do so, they need to stop hurting women in the process.
I remember a long time ago visiting the Imperial War Museum in London and seeing not one mention of this side of war, the ravaging of our poor, helpless female bodies. Every soldier's voice was there, but not one voice of the wretched, the prostitute. Why was there no exhibit of the girls forced to endure assembly-line sex in brothels on the eve of battles, because so many men crowded in, forming long lines to get at that one female body, that one last sex act, before combat. While the boys have their fun, she is knifed, over and over, between her legs. That is the terrible irony of prostitution: the man's sexual pleasure means incredible suffering for the woman. I would like to hear her story. All of this, the unbearable misery of the raped, is invisible, hidden, and will continue as long as no one talks about it. The few efforts of a few rare women to actually bring this up are always met with indifference, as if this were simply a trivial sidebar to the affairs of men.
What would war be, after all, for those 'courageous, honorable' men called soldiers, without the bodies of women to rape, break, violate, brothelize? The soldier "must have his fuck," as one vet said to me. What a hard irony: that the woman who provides the sexual service so necessary for the soldier's well-being is despised for it, as filth, as a toilet, as a 'diseased slut' — it is no wonder prostitutes rarely tell their stories — and he is glorified for his courageous noble deeds.
'Innocent civilians' is a common phrase for the 'collateral damage' of men's wars. Why not 'innocent raped body,' or 'innocent prostituted body' — to reflect the reality of that innocence being violated and destroyed?
It is not in the interests of men to remember the women ravaged by war. The Raped Body is the Soldier's Reward. (Could we get all these young American men to go to war without the Promised Sex Binge in Bangkok ? After Vietnam, after the Persian Gulf War, and now — that's where the boys go, for the sex-fix reward.) Briseis's Tale doesn't matter. (To be crude, it is Briseis's Tail that is the territory of the war-savaged, not her story.)
Regarding any kind of accurate or sympathetic portrayal of rape or 'prostitution rape,' Vietnam style, or any style, movies simply don't show this side of war, the woman's side, the side of her torn and degraded body.
Oliver Stone's Platoon shows little in the way of rape when the men invade and destroy the village. A girl naked from the waist up is being attacked by a group of the soldiers and Charlie Sheen's character pulls them off her, says, "Don't do it," and holds her to him. The men say she's "just a gook." Sheen's character says, "She's a human being."
It's sad that Oliver Stone chooses to leave out this huge slice of realism in the destruction of the village scene — the gang rape of the young village girls — as if it were incidental, minor, barely important. Only a brief foray into that, and then he leaves it behind. But then he is a man, looking at the war from his male point of view, so of course the raped bodies of girls don't matter much. It's as if the male is so much more capable of suffering, for Stone, so much more important in his maleness, that any female suffering is trivial, overlooked, barely there.
Another big element of realism Stone fails to note is that, after the soldiers totally destroy their huts, animals, property, men, way of life, etc., these poor village women and girls and children will now join a massive refugee population of starving people, and many, sadly, will be sold as whores. The little girl that Tom Berenger's character holds a gun to, now that her father has been taken away from her, and she has no protection, might end up on some GI's sexual menu in a year of two, when she's considered old enough to use. I wonder why Oliver Stone didn't see fit to chronicle this type of suffering. Even this liberated filmmaker obviously does not consider the sexual brutalization of women, girls, and children important. Only men's bodies matter, apparently. Only the soldier matters. Not the woman he hurts.
Apocalypse Now does show serial rape, but that of a blonde, glamorized Playboy playmate, not a Vietnamese woman. With all of the local women being ravaged, I've always wondered why this movie had to import a Caucasian. The guys could have raped her back home; they didn't have to bring her all the way to Vietnam to do it.
My lack of sympathy for 'the horror, the horror,' whether it be in this film, or its prototype, Heart of Darkness, derives from the fact that — of course, what else is new? — 'horror' is couched exclusively in male terms. (Conrad was as patriarchal, and narrow, as the whole flotilla of male writers forced on me by the deification of the canon; nowhere in white Western male literature does the 'horror' reflect what happens to the gentle, fragile female body. I don't have to look very far to see Melville exploiting Polynesian women or the imperialist Kipling visiting an Indian red-light district. White male literature, about war or whaling ships [making war on nature], is meaningless to me. It is written from the point of view of the conqueror and the rapist.)
Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) is incredibly frustrating and painful because here, too, we are asked to only consider the suffering of the men, coarse and cruel as they are, and are given no insights into the suffering of the prostitute that is pimped to all the men, in one scene, at $5 a lay, for all of them to use her body. With a lot of crude jeering and shouting and joking, they call her a "little schoolgirl" and there's much amusement about the black soldier maybe being "boku," too big, for her, and the whole thing is played out like a savage farce from a male fraternity gang rape. (The black soldier refers to his member as "pure Louisiana rattlesnake," emphasizing the penis as weapon, something meant to punish, hurt, bite, sting, destroy the woman.)
The prostitute is pathetically fragile and her face is impassive, but she wears sunglasses, I presume so that the soldiers cannot see the suffering in her eyes. And if they saw it, would they care? It seems unlikely. The first one to take her shoves her very hard toward the door of the ruined building where they're all going to rape her and says, "I won't be long. I'll skip the foreplay."
If I were writing this scene, I would go inside the building, and record her pain, bear witness to the 'prostitution rape' of her body. But, apparently, Kubrick did not consider her story important enough to be told. (I do, and in one of my novels, Pink Tiger, I re-tell this episode from the point of view of her raped body.)
What prevails in almost all war movies is the time-honored, man-must-have-his-fuck, tomb-of-the-unknown rapist, buddy-bang theory of war — only the men matter. I hammer upon this point, ad infinitum, because no one has made it before. And no one is making it now. Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free — but not in war movies. Or war coverage by journalists.
I saw FMJ in a theatre when it first came out, and the gang use of this poor woman made me feel sick and cold with fear and pain. It hit me as if my own body were being raped again. The audience, unfortunately, a combination of soldiers, civilians, and their girlfriends, thought this whole pimped-woman scene absolutely hilarious. Snorts and jeers and ugly comments bombarded the screen. That "$5-dollar boom-boom bang," as one soldier shouted at the screen, was apparently very popular in Vietnam . My boyfriend (he became my ex-boyfriend that very night) was among the jeering crowd. I heard not one sympathetic murmur for the prostitute's raped body.
Similarly, the audience found the pathetic street patois of the Saigon prostitute funny. They laughed at the "I'm so horny, I love you long time," which she wails out, like some lost victim of her profession, mimicking the language of the conqueror, like millions of women, in the centuries before her, have. Down through the raped-woman sands of the ages. Particularly sad is the irony in the word "love," since, in her subjugated state, she has been too used by men to tell the difference. For the men "love" means forced sex, rape of her body, so that is what it has come to mean for her, too.
FMJ is typical of war movies in general, and their attitude toward sexually brutalized women. Look at Gallipoli (I could cite a hundred other similar instances), where the Mel Gibson character and his comrades visit the local brothel for some "horizontal refreshment," these soldiers all hooting and crude and drunk and hyped-up and amused, at flesh for sale, and then I'm supposed to feel sorry for these sorry specimens of non-manhood, when they go to war? No way.
I'm not sure what masculinity and manliness are, but I'm positive they have nothing to do with large numbers of men inflicting rape on a prostitute's body.
The Big Red One contains, of course, the obligatory brothel visit: all those fine young men have to have their last sex fix before going into battle. In this film, as in all others, the brothel inmates are smiling, happy girls, oh so willing to give that last sex fling to a gallant boy. This typical cinematic departure from reality reigns everywhere. Look at To Hell and Back, a 1955 Audie Murphy movie. In it, every French and Italian prostitute (sanitized by Hollywood for the blind hypocrisy of the 50's) is a 'happy hooker' — all painted up and smiling and just delighted to fraternize with the GI's. It's, apparently, what French, Italian and German prostitutes (Japanese ones, too) just delighted in during and after WWII — having sex with thousands of drunk American soldiers. At least, according to Hollywood — for the last six decades of its war movies, this pernicious place has made this portrait of the prostitute practically the only one we see. Never a glimpse into the hearts of starving girls, desperate for food. Never a hint that maybe all these young men should be giving the girls the food, instead of forcing sex upon them in exchange for it. That would be the humane, compassionate way.
Hamburger Hill follows the same pattern as Gallipoli (mentioned above): soldiers using Vietnamese village prostitutes ("me, next," as they get in line) and then going off to fight in some battle where we're supposed to care, but only about them. Not about sexually brutalized women. Not I. I won't sympathize with the rapists. I am on the side of the raped body.
Gallipoli, also, presents the time-honored good girl/bad girl scenario, Gibson's blonde innocent farm girl back home set up as a wholesome contrast to the painted harlots he visits in his manly brothel forays.
The last two films mentioned — Hamburger Hill and Gallipoli — also glamorize the prostitutes — presenting them as voluptuous Hollywood versions of slave handmaidens. In truth, many of the village prostitutes in Vietnam were far from healthy, let alone glamorous, suffering as they did from TB, skin diseases, starvation, and, of course, VD, carried from one body to another by the GI's. (I don't think my mind wants to go into the Gallipoli brothels and the broken, diseased, non-Hollywood version of whorebodies the men would have been using.)
Over and over, we see war movies with Asian women in bars and brothels who are smiling, happy, flirting, made-up by Hollywood to look like brown Barbies, cute, slant-eyed sex toys. The image, overwhelmingly misleading, is that these women like what they do, and that it is voluntary. No one bothers to tell their side of the story. One common theme in testimonials of prostitutes: we smile on the outside, to make the money, or to keep from being beaten, if we don't bring in enough. But we cry constantly on the inside.
Air America, a Mel Gibson Vietnam flick about drug smuggling during the war, also plays into the happy-whore scenario, with a lot of smiling Vietnamese bargirls hanging all over drunken coarse American men, while others dance joyfully on a stage. The one Caucasian woman present seems to regard the whores with amusement, as a dirty joke; yet, she is an aid worker, supposedly there to help village refugees. Does it not occur to her that the step from refugee to brothel girl is pitifully short? Particularly, as pimps 'culled' girls from camps, broke them in, and sold them to the soldiers.
The men play a miniature golf game, with tiny Asian girls dotting the background, like decorative lawn furniture. The girls look like helpless little fawns. The men are roughhousing, fighting, shooting off guns with idiotic male bravado; and the tiny, painted-toy girls, all of whom look about twelve, with skinny, stork arms, are simply smiling cutely in the background. No fear of these crude men, no fear of the guns? The few testimonies we have from prostitutes say that the women fear the crudeness and violence of men very much. Also, the big, heavy American men in this film weigh at least a 100 pounds more than their tiny concubines. Another big cause for fear on the part of the delicate, bought girl. (The few testimonies we have from Asian prostitutes — Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Japanese — say how frightened they are of the bigness of the foreign men.) But, these little girls smile happily away, impervious to violence and rape, willing and brown and slave-like, per the Hollywood recipe.
The film was shot in Thailand, with Thai extras. What did these tiny Thai girls, barely looking twelve-years-old, with their tiny, skinny arms, think of the parts they were playing? Did they feel any revulsion at being turned into the typical Asian whore, for American men to play with? Or were they just grateful to have the money the role brought in?
What about the woman who played the field whore in FMJ? Did she feel the degradation of the girl she was portraying? Did the male actors treat her with any respect when they weren't filming? Or did they just see her as an extension of inexpensive 'cheap gook pussy' (in the soldiers' phrase of the time) since she was Asian? And what about the actress in the same movie who plays the street whore in Saigon, with her pathetic sexual litany of a come-on: "I'm so horny, I love you long time…." Her sad linguistic confusion of "love" and "forced sex," her inability to distinguish, in language, between the two, just deepens the pathos of the song that accompanies her entrance, Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walking." Obviously, "these boots are gonna walk all over you," done, by Sinatra, in the sensual growl of the liberated Western woman, has little reference to the life of this sad, cheap, stepped-on street whore, bartering her body to rough, indifferent, drunk soldiers, only interested in screwing her as economically as possible.
(The Jessica Simpson redo of the Sinatra original, interestingly, echoes some of the Saigon cheap-gook-for-sale scene, although I'm sure unintentionally: the pure blonde-next-door Simpson offering herself for sex while she washes the car in a bikini ['Car Wash and Fuck,' could be seen on signs around Saigon during the American occupation — get your lay while you wait]. Simpson changes Sinatra's growl to a whisper, but Western liberated woman still reigns supreme. Simpson knocks a guy down, for patting her butt, and then all the men subdue each other in a rousing barroom brawl, leaving center stage to a bevy of unmolested, country-western dancing cuties. Blonde Western Liberated Woman, in complete control of her sexual destiny, and the boundaries of her body, no matter how sexual she is. I find the contrast — between the protected Jessica Simpson figure, made such a fuss over because of her dumbness and blonde American innocence, and what has become another archetypal cultural figure, the barely adolescent, frail Asian whore allowed no innocence because she is sold so young — inexpressibly sad. Simpson gets all riled at a butt pat; imagine the misery and degradation of laying down under 10 or 20 drunk men a day that is the everyday reality of many young Asian whores.)
(Brownmiller, in Against Our Will, reports that young Vietnamese whores in the brothels adjacent to our military bases during the war typically worked in rooms furnished with 3 items: a bed, a chair [for clothes], and a picture of a pneumatic Playboy playmate on the wall, to stir up the horny young male customer, in case the ten-year-old size body of the Asian whore in the bed didn't do it. More than inexpressibly sad, getting raped all night beneath the symbol of wholesome, airbrushed, glossy, girl-next-door American sexuality. Maybe it's even sadder that some of these girls were grateful for the work because it meant they could eat. Soldiers really do have to start feeding these poor girls, instead of exploiting them.)
The image of the Asian painted toy whore is so pervasive it is insidious. There is also such inner emptiness, seeing them exclusively from the outside, as disposable surface creatures. Or ignoring their existence totally in a movie about Vietnam, as if this "female" part of the war were not worthy of note. Not even Oliver Stone thinks the stories of the sexually brutalized women important enough to be told, let alone Stanley Kubrick. (Even Casualties of War only shows the girl from the outside — this time as a raped, tortured, bleeding thing, rather than as a painted thing, but it is the same principle.)
In Off Limits, Gregory Hines and Wilhelm Defoe play two American policemen investigating the serial murder of Saigon prostitutes during the war. Despite their supposedly trying to help this most mistreated strata of Saigon life, the men themselves treat the prostitutes they talk to for information with scorn and contempt, as if they are dirt, filth, crap, flea dung, the lowest of the low. Not one polite or kind word to any of these women. Even the baby of one of the murdered prostitutes comes in for their scorn — as they take him to an orphanage run by French nuns, they make jokes about him and about all the abandoned Amerasian children they themselves have fathered around Saigon. This is particularly horrifying since, in the murder scene itself, after the gunshot that kills his mother, the poor, tiny baby starts crying.
At the orphanage, the men are polite, chivalrous, all gentlemanly with a nun who helps them with the investigation. In a cool fashion, but with a touch of compassion in her voice, she tells the men something of what she knows of the murdered prostitutes, because she had worked with them, tried to help them — "This one's specialty was sadomasochism, bondage" — "That one the officers lined up to use" — "This one her pimp exploited terribly — put her in the lesbian sex shows for the GI's." Her controlled compassion seems to have no impact on the hard attitudes of the men. Neither has it apparently ever occurred to these men that the reason the women leave their offspring with the nuns at night is so that they won't have to work in the same room, their babies and little girls right there, watching, while they're doing it with the soldiers in front of them. (The Deerhunter shows a similar situation — a Vietnamese bar girl taking the man to her room, where her Amerasian baby is crying.)
No more perfect picture of the virgin/whore dichotomy, created by the callous insensitivity of men, can we find than in Off Limits — treat those poor whores like absolute dirt and crap — after all, the sluts are getting what they deserve — and be all reverential and hushed and worshipful with the nun. To my mind, we should worship the prostitute for what she has had to endure from men. She is as worthy of respect as the nuns who care enough to help her.
One of the most disturbing scenes (again to my mind, in my own raped, battered body) in Off Limits shows a roomful of sweating, coarse, angry, crude American soldiers at a Saigon VD station; a prostitute comes in to try to identify one of them and she looks delicate, flyaway, vulnerable, and kind of sad in her ill-fitting Western outfit. It saddened me to think of these men using such delicacy and defiling her with their rough crudeness. It particular disturbs me because my own body, when I worked as a prostitute, was so damaged by drunk, rough men. In fact, I felt a chill of fear, and nausea, all the time I was watching this movie. A burning fear — all through my stomach, and down into my legs, similar to what I experienced when my own body was being raped. This movie is a rape of everything feminine and delicate in the world.
As in FMJ, the poor prostituted creature uses the vocabulary of her oppressors, calling herself a "number one blow-job girl." As if this were some sort of honorary position. The entire picture of the cesspool brothel of Saigon, created by our military, horrified and saddened me. I felt sickened at this Brothel World of misery and coarseness and roughness that the American soldiers created, through their sexual callousness and lust.
One of the most touching moments in the movie, again to my mind, is a glimpse we receive of the room of one of the murdered prostitutes. The little space is all cheap, pink finery, as if in imitation of what this Eastern women thought the sensuous workspace of a Western whore might be. Like the woman in the lesbian sex show, she was caught in a sad, Westernized version of sex-for-sale.
In fact, the opening scene of Off Limits pans over the naked, Hollywoodized version of a Vietnamese whore's body. Lying on her stomach, she's in a Playboy-like pose, with the silky curve of her spine and legs, the skin lush and taut, the butt rounded, everything undulating, bronze, ripe in the dim lighting of her room. The next moment she is shot. (The song "Pretty Ballerina," in the background as the whorebody is shot, intensifies the sadness.)
I didn't know whether to feel more sorry for her dead or alive. Alive that beautiful body was degraded by the roughness of soldiers, the coarse sadness of whoredom. Dead, maybe her beauty will find some comfort somewhere. In the arms of the angels, away from thieves and vultures. And American GI's.
The movie ends with Hines and Defoe making a dirty joke about a woman with huge boobs. Apparently, even after contact with the sad, cheap, cruel world of Westernized sex imposed on these women, these men have learned nothing in the way of compassion. The horrifying coarseness of Off Limits filled me with pity, and made me cry with sadness. The fact that I felt sick with cold fear the whole time I was watching this movie because it reminded me of my own multiple rapes by drunk men seemed to me to be an anomaly. It is not accepted — for the prostitute to have a voice, or feelings, or a response to her degradation. We are not supposed to be part of the picture of war, except as silent, passive bodies. My feelings are not supposed to be part of the discourse of war.
Just look at how war is discussed night after night on CNN or Fox or Charlie Rose and you will observe the 'cool, detached, proper' discourse of the battlefield. And war is 'reported' this way by all the female journalists and politicians as well. I have written elsewhere that the most useful thing a Condi Rice or a Hillary Clinton could do is visit a brothel in Baghdad or Kabul — or anywhere else Allied soldiers are stationed and local militaries are making use of starving women. This visit to the true raped heart of war is much overdue.
But the hot sordid raped body simply has no place in the cool rhetoric of war.
To return to the movies, Good Morning, Vietnam sanitizes the world of the Saigon prostitute, showing only a clean American bar, again with the cute, painted-toy sex dolls enormously enjoying themselves, with big smiles on their faces, as the soldiers make fun of them because of the way they'll do anything for money. (My only thought as I see a tiny prostitute flirting with a huge Marine about four times her size, with arms far bigger around than her tiny legs — and her wrists so tiny, it would take half a dozen of them to fill his circled fist — is the awful damage it must to do her body to have sex with such large men.)
The whore/virgin idea is there, in full bloom, with Williams courting the chaste girl, protected by her family members, her cute little-girl, button-nose face all shining with innocence, in contrast to the cheap painted bar girl who will do anything for money. No hint that if this 'innocent' lost her family, she might be alone on the streets of Saigon, and vulnerable to pimps and soldiers. Do these filmmakers never think, or feel, or examine, or have any kind of congress with their own hearts, as to why a girl might become a cheap, painted, toy, desperate enough to do anything for money, rather than starve? Apparently not.
Hamburger Hill shows one soldier listening to a tape recording from his girlfriend. She says that she will always remain faithful, but she will understand if he can't. I wonder what could go through a woman's mind, not minding that her boyfriend is using an exploited, over-raped woman, not even caring about that other female's pain. Why does she have no sympathy for her, even though she shares a woman's body with her, one that can be sexually hurt and exploited? Is the temporary sexual pleasure of her boyfriend so important that the subjugated, violated body of the Vietnamese woman has no reality? Puzzling.
I know from personal experience that, overall, women on the homefront during the war exhibited no sympathy for the prostitutes their men were using in Vietnam . And, like women writers of this period, most of the time, the 'good girls' barely knew these highly subjugated female existed — or maybe did not want to know. These disposable people were, apparently, simply not important enough to come to the forefront of the American woman's consciousness. No feminists or anti-war activists paid any attention to them; they were invisible to Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda. One exception was the woman historian Arlene Eisen, who wrote an essay on Vietnamese prostitutes in l975 and who pointed out that our soldiers had turned Saigon into the Brothel of Asia. One voice. That's all. Millions with no voice, because this kind of sexual torture of women, then and now, is, apparently, only worthy of two or three minutes of coverage on CNN, every two or three months. Major print media — magazines and newspapers, even the liberal and radical ones — show a similar indifference and disregard. Very small amounts of space, if any, are ever devoted to this issue. And it's not because all the journalists are male. Almost all women in the media ignore this extreme form of sexual torture as well — with rare exceptions. That 'dirty little secret' no one wants uncover: the same attitude the Japanese government had when the Korean Comfort Women tried to confront them with what had been done to them. It's too 'dirty' to talk about. (From the point of view of those ravaged, this is war's 'dirty big secret.') I never saw Christiane Amanpour go into the Serbian rape camps. Or even mention them. Lucky, privileged woman reporting male news from the male point of view. There are no 'women' journalists reporting wars. They all think like men.
I find it startling that websites which tout themselves as non-mainstream — such as 'commondreams' and 'rense' — pay almost no attention to ravaged female bodies, trafficking, rape, military prostitution. Maybe a tiny inch of space now and then. The same goes for magazines like Mother Jones, which prides itself on being so radical — maybe a token article on underage Cambodian prostitutes every few months, but the rest of the time, our raped bodies don't exist for the MJ people. I don't know why I should be surprised since I am often disappointed by prestigious human rights groups like Amnesty International for the same reason. Yes, they do devote some of their space to trafficking, sexual slavery, exploitation of our bodies — but not nearly enough. It is peculiar that they've had a big, ongoing Guantanamo Bay campaign, yet never mention that girls trafficked into the base by military 'pick-up pilots' are being treated far worse by the soldiers than the detainees. What a strange world it is, when a group like Amnesty International focuses such heavy attention on the political prisoners (men) allegedly mistreated at Gitmo, yet they completely ignore the sex slaves (women) right on the same doorstep. Apparently being raped by soldiers is far less a violation of human rights than being detained as a political prisoner. Even for Amnesty International, men are, apparently, more important than women since they devote so much more space to their rights.
Back to war movies and prostitution — WWII ones show only the 'clean' American women, the Claudette Colbert types on the homefront, not the women their men were using.
Overwhelmingly, in books about war, in movies about war, the lives and bodies of the raped and prostituted are ignored. There is one notable exception: Casualties of War. It is based on a true incident: a group of American soldiers kidnap, torture, rape, and finally kill a Vietnamese village girl. One soldier (played by Michael Fox) refuses to participate and later tries to report the incident, putting his own life in danger from fellow soldiers. One movie, out of hundreds, or thousands?? Just one?? Even here, there is a problem. Supposedly, the men rape the village girl because they can't get leave to go into the nearest town and get laid at the nearest brothel. The filmmaker does not point out that the brothel girl's body is subjected every day to what the raped village girl endures only once.
So, we have all these monuments to that terrible endeavor, war, and the men who make it. We have, for example, the Vietnam Memorial, a big wall in Washington with a lot of men's names on it, celebrating the ability of yet another generation of boys to make war, be savage, rape and ravage. Beside that black wall, there needs to be another one. A wall that records all the bodies of the women and girls who died as a result of rape pain.
My archetypal memorial to men at war would not be that famous raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. That flag does not fly over raped bodies. My memorial, in stone, to all men at war, would be a group of soldiers, with their khakis down around their ankles, penises sticking out like weapons, surrounding a helpless, naked prostitute, who is crying.
Where is the Tomb for the Unknown Raped Woman? Where is the Monument for the Forgotten Prostitute? When will their voices (and mine) be heard, and remembered? Never, I'm afraid. Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. Freedom. The word is empty for raped bodies…
The body is much wiser than the mind. Mine is telling me to tell my story. I am doing so. No more silence.
The above is what I wrote last year around Veterans' Day. I'd like to add a few thoughts apropos of this year. I want to note that what is happening in the Congo right now is more savage than what American men did to helpless women in Vietnam and at a level of unbelievable brutality similar to Nanking . And the numbers are on the scale of Rwanda: hundreds of thousands of Congolese women gang raped, some so severely that they are suffering with 'fistula': the tearing of the vaginal membrane so that the bladder and rectum contents seep into the vagina. Women torn from rape by bayonets and tree limbs. Soldiers are even shooting women in the vagina. And raping babies as young as a few months old to death.
There is medical treatment for fistula but not many women can make it to the country's few doctors. Those who do may have to walk for days, with bleeding and leaking between their legs, to get to a care center.
On all of the remembrance days and veteran and memorial days around the world, I'd like all of the news stations on this planet to carry full-size images of a Congolese woman with her insides ripped apart. Let's start right now. This November. Let's show what war really is. It is not the nobility of soldiers, believe me.
There is apparently a kind of 'remake' of Casualties of War coming out in the form of Brian de Palma's Redacted — his version of the rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer in Iraq by American soldiers. It has already premiered in Europe, at the Venice Film Festival, and is slated for U.S. release this month. It will be interesting to see if it makes an appearance. I have yet to see an ad for it. Casualties of War was not made until fifteen years after the end of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam. Will the American media, and the American people — particularly American women who believe their soldier sons and brothers and husbands are saints and never exploit the sexually vulnerable — will they even allow such a movie in our theaters?
What more can be done — other than the full-sized picture of the Congolese woman which needs to be carried on every front page in the world — and blazoned across Times Square ? Not much. Once a year, a number of women in San Francisco honor the 400,000 Bangladesh victims of Pakistani rape camps. Does the day really do these practically forgotten women any good?
Universities faithfully put on productions of The Vagina Monologues. Maybe if one year all the money were donated to those raped and prostituted by war, it might cause a ripple in the media. It would be a minuscule step, but better than the absolute nothing that exists now.
We could vote for people who will do something. But who are those people? I can find no one to support for the 2008 presidential election in the U.S. Hillary has made a few token comments on trafficking; I have never heard Obama mention sexual enslavement/rape/ militarybrothels/ prostitution/trafficking. Nader never said anything about these subjects when he used to run for president. Once, a long time ago, I think the Green Party mentioned that war was not healthy for women due to sexual exploitation. But they don't seem to take up this cause with much fervor.
I could run but I'd probably be assassinated before I took the oath of office. Championing anything as shameful as the military whore body is not popular. After all, she is a disposable processing plant, not even remotely human by our high standards.
I don't see any possibility of getting politicians to notice the presence of women in war, and their subsequent rape/prostitution/exploitation. USA Today (Nov. 5, 2007) reports that of the 2.3 million refugees in Iraq, 83% are women and children. (And there are another 2 million refugees in surrounding countries.) The article on these refugees made no mention of sex for food and survival. Since politicians and journalists are not interested in this topic — all the women journalists in Iraq apparently are looking the other way — where do we turn? Can Human Rights Watch, Refugees International, and Amnesty International tell us what is going on in Iraq? Information from these groups was invaluable when Kosovo was being turned into a military brothel. It was, in fact, the only source of information that we had — with the exception of one brave female military contractor who tried to blow the lid on the rape party and, as a result, lost her job.
Should Hillary be elected, I don't think she is going to spend a lot of time taking girls out of the brothels of Baghdad and Basra — and Kabul — and the other brothels attached to our military bases all over the world (in Korea, for example). The only way she might develop an interest in this topic is if it happened to her. Plant her in a brothel somewhere that the troops of the world pass through, and turn her into a rape processing plant, and I bet she'd put this on her platform very quickly. That is, if she survived long enough to do so.
In a world where women don't even care about the rape/prostituting of other women — and, in fact, even promote it through indifference — what is to be done?
Not much, as I said. I have actually found men better allies in this fight than women. More of them e-mail me and say, "You go, girl — these things need to be said" than do women. For every one rare woman who writes me, ten men offer their support. And many of these are vets — ex-military men who didn't rape but didn't now how to stop what they saw happening around them all over the world — anywhere there is a military presence, they tell me, vulnerable women are sexually exploited. I even had an ex-Pakistani soldier write me an eyewitness account of what he had seen in a rape camp so many years ago. And done. And he asked me to forgive him. Not all men are rape monsters — even if they rape, I have discovered. But I do think that women are monsters if they do not help other women.
How can we combat what seems to be such hopeless and overwhelming "sexual terrorism" against women? Protest, awareness — these are first steps. But they do not help the raped/prostituted unless they are followed by actions.
Here's a suggestion: let's replace all of those raping male UN Peacekeepers and NATO troops with women UN Peacekeepers and NATO troops. Then let us make these women (say, a feminine benevolent army of 100,000 strong) the sexual safeguards of the world. Anywhere there is conflict, they watchdog the militaries of the world. They set up safe camps and centers where women cannot be raped/prostituted and they distribute long-term aid and help to the millions who have already been caught in the rape mechanisms of war.
Would women care enough to help other women on such a scale of benevolence and compassion? I doubt it.
Copyright © 2007 Suki