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The Body Politic | The Nation

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The Body Politic

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A cartoon by Bill Mauldin from the October 24, 1944, issue of Stars and Stripes

A cartoon by Bill Mauldin from the October 24, 1944, issue of Stars and Stripes

What Soldiers Do
Sex and the American GI in World War II France.
By Mary Louise Roberts.
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Once arrested, the defendants—who were not guaranteed legal counsel in US military courts—were often convicted with chilling speed. In one case, two African-American soldiers were charged, put on trial and sentenced to death within a week of the alleged rape. A white soldier would be afforded a more methodical trial, albeit one where bias worked in the opposite direction. The defense would take its time to question, and ideally discredit, witnesses and the accuser. French civilians were not without blame in this injustice. Roberts writes that, aware of the severity of an accusation, French prostitutes “were known to threaten black soldiers with charges of rape in order to extort higher fees for services.” Other women may have accused black men of rape out of fear of exposing interracial relationships, or out of fear of black men themselves. In a nation that had once colonized black subjects, the American men of different races who now patrolled its cities and towns became targets for deep-seated anxiety over France’s waning international power.

As for the US military, Roberts writes, it acted so swiftly and lethally in these rape cases because of the considerable damage that sexual violence caused to US-French relations. A rape undid the American military’s carefully crafted myth of the GI as manly hero, come to rescue the damsel in distress, France herself. Rape recast the GI as brutal invader, savagely taking his spoils of war. Scapegoating black soldiers and playing on French racism enabled the military to separate that damaging narrative from the larger one of the (white) GI hero that helped establish US control in a broken France.

The political and diplomatic costs of rape are vividly evident in Okinawa as well. Arguably the most explosive rape case in that arena has been the 1995 gang rape of a 12-year-old. A local schoolgirl, walking home one night in her neighborhood outside a US Marine Corps base, was abducted by three servicemen. The men threw her in the back seat of a rental car, bound and beat her, and drove her to a secluded spot, where they raped and left her. Sustaining injuries that would require two weeks of hospital treatment, the girl dragged herself to a nearby house for help and later provided police with descriptions of the men and the vehicle, leading to their arrest.  

News of the story set off what scholar Chalmers Johnson later called “the greatest crisis in Japanese-American relations” in decades. Locally, Okinawans rallied against the rape, leading to the largest demonstration in the prefecture’s history (a record that remained unbroken until 2007, when citizens protested the government’s attempt to excise from textbooks the military’s role in the mass suicides that were urged upon Okinawans—and assisted by Japanese soldiers—during the fateful American invasion of 1945). In response to the 1995 uproar, Japanese and US politicians were forced to re-examine the “status of forces” agreement, part of the US-Japan Security Treaty, and renewed talks about relocating Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a less populated area of the island.   

Rape cases involving American servicemen snap people awake in a way that a helicopter crash or a barroom brawl or a threatened coral reef do not. Knowing this, activists in Okinawa have reduced the islanders’ grievances against the American military presence to just four words. The crimes and hazards associated with US service members there include traffic and training accidents, burglaries, assaults and murders, but printed on buttons and stickers is the simple slogan “NO Rape, NO Base.” The elimination of the latter would mean the eradication of the former. 

This simplification discounts, among other complexities, the rapes committed by Okinawan and Japanese men as well as Japan’s dubious track record in aiding victims and prosecuting rape. But the slogan is effective because it is an allegory: the issue here is not sexual violence but sovereignty. Roberts illustrates this tendency to view war as a battle for control over female bodies. During World War II, victors tacked women onto the list of commodities won: “Just a few weeks ago,” an American army officer in Normandy wrote to his wife, “the Germans were using these roads, buildings, fields, chairs, tables, toilets, women, and now we are.” Meanwhile, for the vanquished, nothing signaled defeat more than sexual violence. “The worst humiliation for a soldier,” a character in a 1946 French novel declares, “is to abandon your country’s women to the whims of the conquerors.” 

A rape by a soldier of a local woman is a visceral reminder of state subjugation: the presence of foreign men who, in France during the war, were there to liberate an occupied country and, in present-day Okinawa, still dominate the landscape due to a decades-old defeat and the uneven distribution of postwar burdens within the country. Even without finessing by the media or activists, a rape can come to stand for the whole transnational, political, historical situation, and it hits people in the gut, the way only a good metaphor can. In the 1995 case, the innocent girl became Okinawa, kidnapped, beaten and ravaged by a thuggish United States. Tokyo was the offsite pimp that enabled the abuse, having let the brute in.

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