sexual violence war and truth

Power and sex in the trenches

Thursday 14 March 2024 1:28 PM

I want to talk about sexual violence as both a tool of war and an emblem of victimhood. I now have your attention, right? Let me elaborate.

As I’ve followed the ghastly events in Gaza, it’s been impossible not to notice the part played by sexual violence in two ways. Ditto the Ukraine war. But more to the point war in general, any if not all wars. We can probably never answer the question definitively. But my guess is sexual violence would be a part of almost every story of war, conquest, occupation, invasion, and colonial settlement. As our culture has belatedly come to grasp at home, it's about power not sex. And what is war if not power on steroids? If rape and sexual assault go largely unproven, unrecorded, unreported and unnoticed in Australian homes and streets, why would it be different in any war? In other words sexual violence ought not surprise us as a fact, a default almost, of the power and dominance of the conquering victor, provable or not as a war crime.

On the domestic front it's a "he said, she said" proposition, nearly always. And as such it commonly fails the burden of criminal proof. I suspect the competing truth claims of war would be the same on a grander scale. In the merry go round of claim and counter claim about Gaza, Hamas and the IDF, sexual violence has featured significantly, much less as violation of persons than as evidence of communal victimhood. In the language and framing of war propaganda, communal victimhood is a valuable commodity; for it provides justification for counter attack, establishing it as just, righteous and honourable. The ‘other’ are evil monsters who’ve forfeited any right to mercy. Sir Galahad must vanquish the black knight for the honour of the slighted damsel. Except in this cause the ‘damsel’ is the populace, not the actual human victims. Such is the narrative of the aspiring ‘victim’ collective in war. 

But when there’s a watching listening world the coveted victim status requires evidence. And verifiable evidence will most likely be in short supply. What’s required then is believable stories, preferably at the more grotesque end. Grotesque buys the maximum in sympathy and licence to avenge. So in the present Gaza war, from both sides, we have multiple claims of sexual violence perpetrated by the other. The specific claims advanced as evidence of victimhood may well be fictions. That doesn't mean sexual assault is fiction, whether of Hamas on October 7 or of the IDF since. It only means it can't be proven. I suspect it's been perpetrated by both parties in the present Gaza war, secret crime though it be.

We’ve seen the same propaganda played out in a rather different theatre of war over the past two decades, in US domestic politics. Think Pizzagate, QAnon, Donald Trump and his supporters. If you want to keep your opponent thoroughly ‘othered’ and hopefully unelectable, the best ‘evidence’ to the cause is advancing their criminality. And you don’t need too much time in the war propaganda game to realise that the more grotesque end of alleged criminality returns the most bang for the crusading buck. Why waste your moral capital calling your opponent say an alcoholic abuser or a serial traffic offender, when you could paint them as a corrupt big time money launderer or, better still, a member of a child molesting cartel. Get a win there, and you could even grab them by the …

You’re right, Mr Aeschylus. Truth is still the first casualty.

P.S. For regular readers - I haven’t forgotten the Maccabees; it’s just delayed a bit ...