The War Crime No One Wants to Talk About (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: sexual assault, war, human rights, womens history

War Through the Lives of Women
By Christina Lamb


The atrocities in “Our Bodies, Their Battlefields” horrify, as they should. Lamb, a veteran foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times of London, does society a service by forcing us to look. Rape, she writes, is the “most neglected” war crime of the 1949 Geneva Convention. It’s rarely prosecuted. It’s rarely written about. Here, she provides one of the first exhaustive examinations of sexual violence as a deliberate weapon, used to inflict terror and humiliation. Her book is painful to read but should be required for everyone interested in military and global affairs.

In the canon of literature about conflict, rape barely figures. Most such books deal with military strategy, male heroism and suffering. Men soldier, bond, die or return home. But what about the women? Oh, right, they’re spoils: Men are cannon fodder, women are man fodder. Yet rape in war wields as much destruction as guns do. It can destroy families and leave survivors permanently scarred.

Combatants get away with sexual pillage, Lamb argues, because men in power haven’t stopped them: “War rape was met with tacit acceptance and committed with impunity, military and political leaders shrugging it off as a sideshow. Or it was denied to have ever happened.”

As a foreign correspondent, Lamb paid special attention to women in conflict zones because her colleagues seemed to be more interested in interviewing men. Here, she hands rape survivors a microphone they are seldom given. She travels through Asia, Africa, Europe and South America to provide an intimate picture of what it’s like to be abused and forgotten.

She also traverses the centuries, opening her book by skewering Herodotus, credited with writing the first history of Western civilization. He claimed that women didn’t mind being carried off by the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Trojans. Yet while today the international community recoils at abductions of women and girls by Boko Haram and ISIS, it hasn’t prosecuted them either.


Editor's Note: The complete article, which is linked here, begins with and contains depictions of sexual assault that may be disturbing. 


Read entire article at New York Times

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