Then Is Now & Now Is Then for Women in War

Ἕκτορος ἥδε γυνὴ ὃς ἀριστεύεσκε μάχεσθαι               6.460
Τρώων ἱπποδάμων ὅτε Ἴλιον ἀμφεμάχοντο.
ὥς ποτέ τις ἐρέει· σοὶ δ’ αὖ νέον ἔσσεται ἄλγος
χήτεϊ τοιοῦδ’ ἀνδρὸς ἀμύνειν δούλιον ἦμαρ.
ἀλλά με τεθνηῶτα χυτὴ κατὰ γαῖα καλύπτοι
πρίν γέ τι σῆς τε βοῆς σοῦ θ’ ἑλκηθμοῖο πυθέσθαι.     6.465

“Here is Hektor’s wife, and when it came to fighting
he of all the horse-taming Trojans was by far the best
when all around Ilion they were fighting for the city.”
That’s what people will say some day, and for you
there will be fresh grief because you have no man
like me to ward off from you the day of slavery.
Well, I hope the earth is piled on top of my dead body
and covers me over before I hear in any way
your shrieks as you are being dragged off.

Homer Iliad 6.460-465

Book VI of the Iliad is the great book of family. Here Hektor has returned to within the citadel of Troy to take a breather from the fighting along the plain, and in the course of this respite he visits his life – his past (his mother), his present (his brother Paris and the latter’s ‘wife’ Helen), and his future (his wife, Andromakhe, and their little son, Astyanax).  It is to her that he makes the statement cited in the epigraph.

Andromakhe pleads with Hektor to stay inside Troy with her and their son, and fight from the ramparts of the city.  He explains why it is his duty to return to the battle field, for, he notes, aside from refusing the shame of being thought a coward, he has few illusions about what will happen to her, his wife, indeed to all the women of Troy, if the Greeks win.   In fact, Hektor calls Andromakhe’s (and our) attention at 6.447-8 to this inevitability:

εὖ γὰρ ἐγὼ τόδε οἶδα κατὰ φρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμόν:
ἔσσεται ἦμαρ ὅτ᾽ ἄν ποτ᾽ ὀλώλῃ Ἴλιος ἱρὴ
for this I know full well in my head and my heart:
the day will come when sacred Troy will be destroyed

Centuries after the fact as it were Euripides mined this horrific aspect of the Trojan Cycle with exquisite pathos in such ‘war plays’ on the Athenian tragic stage as, among others, The Trojan Women [415 BCE], Hekabe [c. 424 BCE], and Andromakhe [c. 426 BCE].  The latter play paints – just as Hektor had predicted — a not very pretty picture of her ‘day of slavery’ (δούλιον ἦμαρ) as the concubine of Neoptolemos, son of Achilles, and her ‘fresh grief’ (νέον … ἄλγος) as household slave subject to the vindictive whims of his cruel wife, Hermione, and her father, Menelaus (whose wife, Helen, it will be recalled was abducted by Andromakhe’s brother-in-law, Paris, and so was the casus belli).

It’s payback time!

It’s a common story from a distant then, it’s a common story from a present now.

Given that the Trojan War is traditionally dated to around 1190/1180 BCE (and Homer’s Iliad based on that war to the late eighth or early seventh centuries BCE), let us quickly move forward in time more than 3,000 (yes, three thousand) years to the early 21 century, our own enlightened and civilized world.

In that lengthy interim what has changed in connection with the treatment of women caught up in war?

Not a great deal, it would seem from scouring the headlines during just the very recent past and up into the first few days of 2012.  Think about the following reports linking war and rape, for example:

“Human Rights Record of United States in 2010”

(China Daily   11 April 2010)

“According to figures from Pentagon, cited by the Time magazine on March 8, 2010, nearly 3,000 female soldiers were sexually assaulted in fiscal year 2008, up 9 percent from the year before. Close to one-third of the retired female soldiers said they were victims of rape or assault while they were serving.”

“Kachin women slam Burmese army for using rape as a weapon of war”

(Asian Correspondent   22 June 2011)

“… at least 18 women and girls have been gang-raped by government soldiers since June 10. Four of these women were killed after being raped. One incident was so inhumane that the victim was raped in front of her husband, who was tied up and forced to watch. Another woman died from her injuries due to gang-rape.”

“Gaddafi beordrade massvåldtäkter”

[Gaddafi gave the orders for gang rapes]
(Aftonbladet [Sweden]   6 September 2011)

“Chefsåklagare Moreno-Ocampo säger att det är svårt att veta hur många som har blivit utsatta för massvåldtäkterna. Enligt vittnen rör det sig om hundratals kvinnor i flera områden.”
[The chief prosecutor says that it is difficult to know how many have been subjected to

mass rapes.  According to witnesses it’s a question of hundreds of women in several districts.]

UN Sanctions Congolese Commander Named In Rape Report
(The Wall Street Journal   30 November 2011)
We read as follows:
“… the commander of a Congolese armed group who was named in a U.N. report documenting mass rape in late July 2010. … a leader of the political wing of the Mai Mai armed militia group, who according to an Al Jazeera report has held campaign events as he runs for office, was implicated by the U.N. in a July 2011 report (pdf) that concluded at least 387 civilians were raped between July 30 and Aug. 2, 2011. … In the course of the attacks, children were abducted, raped, subjected to forced labor and other human rights abuses …”

As the next entries elaborate, nor does outright civil war (with its grotesquely torqued adjective!) between members of a single polity as opposed to war between foreigners appear to make much difference if any:

“Laurent Gbagbo vor Gericht”
[Laurent Gbagbo on Trial]
(Frankfurter Allgemeine   5 December 2011)
Vor dem Internationalen Strafgerichtshof in Den Haag hat der Prozess gegen ehemaligen Präsident der Elfenbeinküste begonnen. Die Anklage wirft ihm unter anderem Mord, Vergewaltigung und Verfolgung vor.
[In the International Criminal Court in the Hague the trial against the former president of Ivory Coast has begun.  He is charged, among other things, with murder, rape and persecution.]

“Rwanda: la CPI [Cour pénale internationale] libère Mbarushimana”

[Rwanda: the CPI (International Criminal Court) frees Mbarushimana]

(Le Figaro [France]   19 December 2011)

Callixte Mbarushimana, 48 ans, secrétaire exécutif des Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda … était soupçonné de cinq crimes contre l’humanité (meurtre, torture, viols, actes inhumains et persécutions) et de huit crimes de guerre (meurtres, tortures, viols, mutilations, traitements inhumains, destruction de biens, attaques contre la population civile et pillages).

[Callixte Mbarushimana, 48, executive secretary of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda … was suspected of five crimes against humanity (murder, torture, rapes, inhuman acts and persecutions) and of eight war crimes (murders, instances of torture, rapes, mutilations, inhuman treatments, destruction of property, attacks on the civilian population and plunder).]

“For Somali Women, Pain of Being a Spoil of War”
(The New York Times   27 December 2011)
Among the horrors recounted in this article are the following:
“Five militants burst into her [that of a “a frail 17-year-old” girl] hut, pinned her down and gang-raped her, she said. They claimed to be on a jihad, or holy war, and any resistance was considered a crime against Islam, punishable by death.”
“Somalis face yet another widespread terror: an alarming increase in rapes and sexual abuse of women and girls.
The Shabab militant group, which presents itself as a morally righteous rebel force and the defender of pure Islam, is seizing women and girls as spoils of war, gang-raping and abusing them …”
“…there has been a free-for-all of armed men preying upon women and girls displaced by Somalia’s famine, who often trek hundreds of miles searching for food and end up in crowded, lawless refugee camps where Islamist militants, rogue militiamen and even government soldiers rape, rob and kill with impunity.”

“The West’s Duty in Syria”
(The Weekly Standard   2 January 2012)
“… [in Syria] Assad’s state terrorists have unrestrained freedom to murder, rape and nail-bomb protesters …”

Need I document more episodes from this nightmare, as perennial as it is ubiquitous?  My up-to-date catalogue of barbaric behaviors by one group of human beings – male soldiers – against another group of human beings – women civilians – could all too sadly be expanded vastly, from anywhere in the world. One is almost tempted to believe that ancient Homer’s allusions cited in the epigraph seem benign by invidious comparison with these contemporary terrors – almost, but not quite!  For of course we know that, just as we have seen from the modern world, nor was this ‘almost’ the case either in Homer’s world or later Greek and Roman antiquity.

As just one example, consider the explicit conditions of the formal oath that is sworn in Book 3 regarding the outcome of the fight between Hektor and Paris (298-301):

‘Ζεῦ κύδιστε μέγιστε καὶ ἀθάνατοι θεοὶ ἄλλοι
ὁππότεροι πρότεροι ὑπὲρ ὅρκια πημήνειαν
ὧδέ σφ᾽ ἐγκέφαλος χαμάδις ῥέοι ὡς ὅδε οἶνος
αὐτῶν καὶ τεκέων, ἄλοχοι δ᾽ ἄλλοισι δαμεῖεν
Most glorious and greatest Zeus, and you other
immortal gods, whoever first violate these oaths,
just like this wine here so may their brains flow out
on the ground, and the brains of their children too,
and may their wives be raped by the men on the other side.

Why?

That is the question:  why does this pathological insistence that is already full-blown in Homer perdure throughout the ages, the countries, the cultures?  War, yes, maybe one can see that.  But the extreme violation of women and children who are not military?

I can’t answer this question any better than you.  In the retro psychological world of my college and early academic years Freud and friends (Adler, Erikson, Jones, Jung et al.)  was the ‘key’, but he and his theories have by now of course fallen into desuetude.  In his place step the brave new worlds of evolutionary psychology, neurochemistry, psychopharmacology and that whole clan, and they will stay around … until the next great explicators appear, as they will, I would guess, around mid-century if not sooner.

But let me be retrograde for just a minute.  If we give Freud at least a nod or just a wink, what we might extrapolate here would involve a reversal of the ‘normative’ notion that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and so what men do [ontogeny] the tribal collective [phylogeny] has adopted, and phylogeny now recapitulates ontogeny.  Any such formulation of course has no explanatory power whatsoever and is merely a descriptive ruse designed to lull one into some spurious sense of having comprehended the incomprehensible.

Equally useless would seem to be to wish with Hektor:

Well, I hope the earth is piled on top of my dead body
and covers me over before I hear in any way
your shrieks as you are being dragged off.

ἀλλά με τεθνηῶτα χυτὴ κατὰ γαῖα καλύπτοι
πρίν γέ τι σῆς τε βοῆς σοῦ θ’ ἑλκηθμοῖο πυθέσθαι.

The situation is a classic ἀπορία aporia ‘a no-way-out’, an intractable problem, and there really is no solution.  We don’t like endings like that, but in life as in literature “it just is what it is” and things don’t work out the way you thought or wanted that they should.

Get used to it:  it’s been going on a long time, a lot longer than some puny stretch of even three-thousand years, and it won’t stop in 2012 – though some higher power should speak up!

Sometimes ‘learning’ from antiquity can be a real downer.

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