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Rape, the Marines and Anthony Swofford's Jarhead

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

“We’re carrying on our backs the overseas sins of generations of fighting American GIs--gang rapes in Vietnamese jungles, the same in Seoul and Pusan, pregnant Englishwoman abandoned after World War II, Japanese women raped and impregnated and abandoned during the occupation, thousands of French whores filled with syphilitic cocks while the Great War raged on.”
                    Page 92, Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead.

I open with this ugly passage because to make something clear from the very beginning: I do not think American soldiers are rapists. Anthony Swofford does.

Multiple passages across the book are written in a language offensive not just to feminists or liberals--I’m both--but to any person who respects women. Other passages openly encourage and endorse rape.

On pg. 7, Swofford writes about getting jacked up on Vietnam era war films to prepare for deployment, “Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his real First F***.” This is not meant ironically or satirically. While the average person gets upset after watching war films, Swofford and his fellow marines, “are excited by them...”

Frustrated on pg. 17, Swofford writes about what he wishes he could tell a reporter, “Rape them all, kill them all, sell their oil, pillage their gold, sell their children into prostitution. I don’t care about the flag and God and Country and Corps. I don’t give a f*** about oil and revenue.” He doesn’t follow this by saying, “I was wrong then,” or “Boy, was I f***ed in the head prior to the war.”

Nope, Swofford lets these sentiments stand. He doesn’t take a stand or offer any analysis of the situation. If there is one benefit to writing a memoir, this is it, offering your opinion.

We’re left with two options at this point. First--and this is the problem with memoirs--this description isn’t true. I’d like to think that is the case. I believe this is true. Just this weekend, while watching a Band of Brothers marathon, I saw a soldier steal watches off dead Germans.

“That’s f***ed up.” I told my dad.

“Raping and pillaging. Armies have been doing it for years.” My dad said.

“Not our military.”

“Oh no, we’re one of the best. The American military is known for not doing that stuff.” my dad assured me, as he has assured me before. (Ironically, in light of my post two week’s ago, I’ll admit that the above exchange is almost entirely made up from memory.)

It may be naive, but I’d like to think this is true. I’d like to think Americans have a moral character that goes above and beyond, or at least we have a democratic culture that keeps these violent impulses in check. I’d like to believe that American soldiers don’t rape or, at the very least, rape less than other militaries. Even if our Military has had soldiers lapse in the past into moral ugliness and evil, it has never been on the scale of Rwanda or the congo.

Which brings us to the second option, that what Swofford describes is true, that our military is filled with rapists. Even if this is the case, as I said earlier, Swofford’s refusal to take a moral stand is offensive.

Nathaniel Fick (who we’ll get to in a couple weeks) neatly sums up the film and the book Jarhead in five words, “Not in my Marine Corps.” As an American, I have to agree.

Not in America’s Marine Corps.

eight comments

I will just say that Eric and I will discuss rape as a concept in deeper context later. Also, we have a post on genocide on Monday, so we are being pretty positive for our next few posts.

Armies have been doing it for years. That still doesn’t justify the action, does it? I would hope this depiction of life in the military is a sensationalist depiction in order to sell more books through the use of graphic violence, swearing, and sexual humor. One would think anyone else would hope the same…

One of our loyal readers, who I may or may not be paternally related to, commented on how one of the above quotes uses the f-word. Though Michael and I have decided not to use curse words in our writing, we want to present art in its original unfiltered context.

This website is r-rated. It is mature, and not written for children. I mean, the topic of this post alone makes it that way.

I’m foundering a bit, trying to figure out how to answer this without implying that I think that all of the men in the military seem like rapists. They’re not, but I feel like there are a number of things that I’ve heard or seen in my 20+ years in the service that would give me pause.

And I am posting this (despite my reluctance) because I think it’s a dialogue that should be had. I believe that the vast majority of the military is made up of honorable people trying to the right thing. But there’s a curious blind spot which somehow exists at the same time.

Some examples: – Ask yourself how many forward-deployed soldiers and sailors have gone to 3rd world brothels or frequented 3rd world sex workers when given the opportunity. Then ask yourself (or do some research on-line to confirm): How many of these sex workers were over the age of consent? How many of them voluntarily entered the sex trade? How is having sex with a 14-year-old who became a prostitute because her family sold her when she was 12 not rape? – Ask yourself how your soldiers and airman handled themselves in a bar on R&R after a deployment? How many of them had the chance to go home with an extremely drunk individual, and then had sex with that person? Does that meet the legal definition of rape? (It does, in most states) – Think about the pornography that you saw in the possession of soldier and sailors you saw on deployment (assuming you’ve had the opportunity). Was there some seriously degrading things in there? Rape fantasies? Human-animal porn? Snuff porn? Are you confident that all of that was or wasn’t filmed/photographed consensually?

When I have seen the examples of the above behavior, I speak up, I try to educate, I sometimes intervene – but believe me, it’s an uphill battle, and I’ve had some people get seriously pissed at me when I’ve rained on their sex parade.

I have vivid memories of drunken discussions with marines, sailors, airmen, and soldiers that sounded an awful lot like the dialogue described in Jarhead. It would have been nice if he’d spoken out about it to point out how misogynist it was, but I don’t think his descriptions were inaccurate.

Mark, I totally agree with what you have to say. In fact, I think that was my larger point. There may/is a culture of degradation of women in the military. A lot of academics posit that rape can only exist with a culture around it that promotes and supports rape. In some ways, what you are describing fits into this.

In college, I worked with groups on this very issue, and like you describe, people don’t want to listen.

I think your third paragraph explains it all really. How is sex with under age prostitutes better than rape? It’s not. But Swofford supports and promotes this culture, and if I wrote a memoir, I wouldn’t.

Thanks so much for your comment. You’ve inspired me to want to write more on this topic. Feel free to email me anytime.

those who have never been will never know…swofford captures the exact mindset of most infantry marines

The post says: “I do not think American soldiers are rapists.” Clearly, some of them are. There are documented cases of US soldiers performing rape in each one of the engagements Swofford lists on page 92. There have also been documented cases of soldier-on-soldier (same side) rape.

This part is confusing: “We’re left with two options at this point. First—and this is the problem with memoirs—this description isn’t true. I’d like to think that is the case. I believe this is true.” Are you saying Swofford is lying or you believe him to be telling the truth?

The post says: “Even if our Military has had soldiers lapse in the past into moral ugliness and evil, it has never been on the scale of Rwanda or the congo.” In fact, our slips into moral ugliness and evil have been on a far greater scale than Rwanda or the Congo. We killed millions in Vietnam, far more than were killed in Rwanda or the Congo.

At least Swofford was providing a document that we can use to explore the bloodlust of the American soldier, even if he doesn’t moralize (which I agree, he should do). But you’re doing far worse than he is: you’re denying this stuff exists.

As a femminist, look at the countless cases of sexual abuse attributed to the armed forces, and see how that lines up with the starry-eyed vision of “our” marines. Use the tools you have as a feminist to examine at the countless cases of sexual abuse within the military and the countless reports filed by abused women in our own armed forces.

You deride Swofford for his lack of morality, but you exhibit far worse: an American exceptionalism that grant us immunity from the terrible things we’ve done on the argument that we’re somehow better than other people who do these same things.

The post ends: “Nathaniel Fick (who we’ll get to in a couple weeks) neatly sums up the film and the book Jarhead in five words, “Not in my Marine Corps.” As an American, I have to agree.

Not in America’s Marine Corps.”

The evidence is to the contrary.

Jon, you got a lot of your facts wrong. On Vietnam, the highest death toll is 2 million people. In Congo, since 1997, over 5 million people have been killed. But I was talking about casualties, I was talking about how Soldiers in Africa use rape as a weapon, in public and in the open. If American Soldiers do that, they are persecuted.

I would say you’re operating on American exceptionalism as well, but you hate American Soldiers and American troops. To compare American troops to the vicious rapists we described in our post last Wednesday is just wrong.