■ Susan Brownmiller 1
In December, 1972, when the Paris "peace" talks had finally reached an intensive phase, I had several long interviews in New York with Peter Arnett, Associated Press correspondent in Vietnam for eight years. Like the rest of Saigon press corps, this Pulitzer Prize winner had never filed a rape story from Vietnam, but like the rest of the press corps he had certainly been aware of its incidence. When he began to think about it, Arnett was able to delineate rape in Vietnam on many levels.
It was Arnett's opinion (not shared by me) that the U.S. Army was "more enlightened" than the Marine Corps when it came to sexual accommodation. By 1966 the 1st Cavalry Division at An Khe, in the Central Highlands, the 1st Infantry Division at Lai Khe, twenty-five miles north of Saigon, and the 4th Infantry Division at Pleiku had established official military brothels within the perimeter of their base camps.
The Lai Khe "recreation area" belonging to the base camp of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division was one-acre compound surrounded by barbed wire with American MP's standing guard at the gate. It was opened only during daylight hours for security reasons. Inside the compound there were shops that sold hot dogs, hamburgers and souvenirs, but the main attraction was two concrete barracks, each about one hundred feet long—the military whorehouses that serviced the four-thousand-man brigade. Each building was outfitted with two bars, a bandstand, and sixty curtained cubicles in which the Vietnamese women lived and worked.
An individual cubicle contained little more than a table with a thin mattress on it and a peg on one wall for the girl's change of clothing. On opposite wall a Playboy nude centerfold provided decoration and stimulation for the visiting soldier. The women who lived in the Lai Khe recreation-center cubicles were garishly made up with elaborate, sprayed bouffant hairdos and many had enlarged their breasts with silicon injections as a concession to Western fetish. The sexual service, as Arnett described it, was "quick, straight, and routine," and the women were paid five hundred piasters (the equivalent of two dollars in American money) for each turn by their GI clients. Americans always paid in piasters. For each trick she turned, a girl would get to keep two hundred piasters (seventy-five cents), the rest going to various levels of payoffs. By turning eight to ten tricks a day a typical prostitute in the Lai Khe compound earned more per month than her GI clients, Arnett advised me—a curious sidelight to a not-so-free enterprise system.
Refugees who had lost their homes and families during the war and veterans of the earlier Saigon bar trade formed the stock of the brothel. They were recruited by the province chief, who took his payoff, and were channeled into town by the mayor of Lai Khe, who also got his cut. The American military, which kept its hands partially clean by leaving the procurement and price arrangement to Vietnamese civilians, controlled and regulated the health and security features of the trade. "The girls were checked a swabbed every week for VD by Army medics," my informed source told me approvingly.
Military brothels on Army base camps ("Sin Cities," "Disneylands" or "boom-boom parlors") were built by decision of a division commander, a two-star general, and were under the direct operational control of a brigade commander with the rank of colonel. Clearly, Army brothels in Vietnam existed by the grace of Army Chief of Staff William C. Westmoreland, the United States Embassy in Saigon, and the Pentagon.
Venereal disease, mostly gonorrhea, was a major preoccupation of the military in Vietnam. One official brothel outside Saigon had a sign on the wall of the bar that "GIRLS WITH TAGS ARE CLEAN." Lest the declaration failed to make its point, a sign on the opposite wall spelled out "GIRLS WITHOUT TAGS ARE DISEASED." It was mandatory for all units to report their incidence of VD to the higher-ups, since it reflected on military discipline as well as on the health of the soldiery; and a high VD count was charged against the merit rating of a battalion. "Most units lied about their VD count," Arnett believed. It was also his understanding that the reported VD rate "was high from the beginning" in relation to other wars and to a normal civilian population. (In 1969 GI's contracted venereal disease in Vietnam at a reported rate of 200 cases per 1,000 persons; the United States rate at the time was 32).
(pp. 94-96. Emphasis added.)
Despite the intense propaganda throughout the long war, our American soldiers did not believe that they were "liberating" anyone, nor were they perceived as liberators. Men in the field were perpetually in a tenuous, frustrating semicombat situation. As Arnett described it, "There were no fixed targets, no objectives, no highways to take—it was patrol and repatrol, search and destroy. Anything outside the perimeter of the base camp or the nearest government-controlled village was enemy territory, and all civilians were treated as enemy. It was so easy to rape on a squad level. Soldiers would enter a village without an interpreter. Nobody spoke Vietnamese. It was an anonymous situation. Any American could grab any woman as a suspect and there was little or no recourse to the law by the people.
Raping and looting go hand in hand in warfare but there was little to loot in the villages of South Vietnam. Arnett believed that the juxtaposition of fragile, small-boned Vietnamese women again tall, strong American men created an exaggerated masculine-feminine dynamic that lent itself readily rape (a similar situation had occurred in Bangladesh). He thought that the Americans participated more in gang rape than in individual assault, the style of the South Vietnamese Army, "because the Americans were trained in the buddy system, for security. They were warned against the dangers of individual fraternizing on operations." The likelihood of sexual assault diminished, he believed, "if the company commander was present—a career officer, a captain or a lieutenant. The noncoms and soldiers had less at stake." His final observation, shared by his Vietnamese wife, his wife's family and others he knew, was that whatever the incidence of atrocity from 1965 on, "the Americans' personal conduct was far better historically than the French, their mercenaries, or the Japanese."
(pp. 97-98. Emphasis added.)
■ Susan Brownmiller 2
By Susan Brownmiller
In December 1991, three Korean women who had been abducted into Japanese military brothels during World War II filed a dramatic class-action lawsuit in a Tokyo court. After a half-century of shame, anonymity, and hardship, the aged survivors were ready to tell their personal stories, and to demand an apology and reparations from the Japanese government on behalf of an estimated 100,000 victims.
The women's campaign had begun in Seoul with a call for a public memorial and had escalated into impromptu confrontations with Japanese diplomats. Their tactical leader, an active feminist, was Professor Yun Chun Ok of Eiwa Women's University. As a young schoolgirl, Professor Yun herself had narrowly escaped abduction and conscription into the brothels. Aided by church women and a sisterly coalition of Japanese feminists who were equally intent on righting an historic wrong, the Koreans' demand for belated justice was covered widely by the foreign media, putting the term "comfort women" into the international lexicon.
Thus, the world learned of a highly organized trafficking system during the Pacific War run by the Japanese Imperial Army, secret police, and local "labor recruiters" using the ruse of legitimate jobs for good pay. Girls and women taken from country village, or hijacked in a broad daylight on city streets, became a human cargo that was transported to barracks on frontline posts, jungle airstrips, and base camps, where the captives remained in sexual servitude until the war's end.
Japan's military brothels were not exactly an undocumented story when the Korean comfort women launched their international campaign. Two books on the subject published in 1970s had assumed a modest place in Japan's growing literature of conscience, but the research of Kim Il Myon, a Korean, and Senda Kako, a Japanese, had produced little interest and only scant indignation. It took the rise of an indigenous feminist movement in Asia to supply the moral outrage and place the dormant issue in a modern context.
Yuki Tanaka, the son of a Japanese military man, is the latest historian, and certainly the most meticulous, exhaustive scholar, to explore the dimensions of the comfort women story. In addition to ferreting out fresh documentations from buried and forgotten sources, he creates and original overview by moving backward and forward in time from the World War II era. He offers a capsule history of Japanese prostitution in foreign and domestic ports in the nineteenth century as Japan sought to expand its international trade (making the interesting point that the trade in women's flesh helped to jump-start capitalist enterprise). He compares Japan's wartime comfort stations with the brothels hastily set up by the defeated rulers for American soldiers during the postwar Occupation (the coercion was economic need rather than brute force). And he notes the similarities between the comfort women's slavery-like barracks and the "rape camps" holding Bosnian women in the ethnic wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia.
Professor Tanaka offers no excuses for what his country did to women in the Second World War II, but he sees it as part of a pervasive pattern of worldwide male aggression and domination. Trafficking in women has been on the increase, in China, Vietnam, Russia, and Eastern Europe, ever since the fall of communism exposed the destitute economies of these unfortunate countries. The moral lawlessness accompanying crude, rudimentary capitalism is not very different from the brutal sexual exploitation that accompanies warfare. The question for the future, of course is can it be stopped?
author of Against our
Will: Men, Women and Rape