Soon after we first met, in 1972, Angela Hamblin and I were discussing, as one does, what writings had particularly influenced us. Two stood out as having had a big impact on each of us. One was Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, the UK edition of which had come out the previous year. The other was a lengthy article that had appeared in the Observer in November 1969, called Incident on Hill 192 - an extract from the book ‘Casualties of War’, by Daniel Lang.
Here’s how the Observer introduced the article:
“This is a true story of an American patrol in South Vietnam. It begins with a brutal rape and murder. But the story’s real significance is to demonstrate what the American poet Robert Lowell said in the Observer in 1967: ‘It would take a million years for North Vietnam to have done as much harm to us as we’ve done to ourselves.’”
We had both been outraged by this framing. For each of us, the real significance of the story was what it revealed about the choices that men make when they are given the opportunity to rape, and how those choices impact on women. Speculation about what Americans had done to themselves diverted attention away from what should have been central - what American men had done to a Vietnamese woman, and why. And that, we had both felt, was unforgivable.
Our initial reactions to the story back in 1969 had focussed on different aspects of it. I had approached it from the standpoint of having been active in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, and having started soon afterwards to become aware of men’s (and particularly my) sexism. I was horrified that four out of five American men in a platoon would rape and then murder a defenceless Vietnamese woman. I put the article aside, but returned to it months later, feeling a need to understand what it revealed about patriarchal relationships between men and women, not just about imperialist relationships between the USA and Vietnam.
Angela had approached the story from the standpoint of a woman who, as a girl, had been subjected to sexual abuse and rape. For her, the fact that four of the five men would seize the opportunity to rape a woman was no surprise. She wanted to know what had motivated them, and what was going on between them. And she wanted to understand why one of the men had resisted the pressure to take part in the rape. She felt that If she could understand that, then perhaps she could experience her situation as a woman living under patriarchy as not totally hopeless.
Why do men rape?
In the early 1980s, Angela was discussing with mainstream publishers a book project whose provisional title was Why do men rape? There was a lot of interest, but the project did not go ahead because Angela would not accept the editors’ insistence that the overall tone should be less ‘anti-men’. (These editors were unable to grasp that suggesting that men have choices about how they relate sexually to women was not being ‘anti-men’. Angela was accepting that men could be better people, and expecting this of them).
One strand of Angela’s research had focussed on how the power structure of a patriarchal society is incorporated within the personalities of individual men. She explored how men were encouraged to use sexual domination and control of women as a measure of their adequacy as men, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of other men, and to establish their position within a hierarchy of men. The contrast between her approach and the currently fashionable but dubious theory, based on evolutionary psychology, that men use rape as a reproductive strategy for spreading their genes, is pronounced.
I recently came across some hand-written notes that Angela had penned about Incident on Hill 192. What she seemed to be exploring in them was what was going on for each man, and what their different responses, and those of the male authorities, revealed about hierarchical relationships between men, how this operates in practice, and how it impacts women. Whether she intended these notes to be the basis of a chapter, or was just noting them to clarify her ideas, I do not know. But they do indicate some of what she was thinking at the time. The following quotes are from her notes, written in the Summer of 1982.
“When I read in this report of the almost casual brutality shown towards this woman, Mao, which the men see as ‘having their fun’, I am reminded that the huge pornography industry is everyday churning out, for the enjoyment of millions of male consumers, violent depictions of women being degraded, bound, imprisoned, terrorised, mutilated, brutalised, and raped. And I am afraid. I ask myself what exactly is the nature of this male sexuality whose pleasure feeds upon my suffering, is stimulated by my humiliation, climaxes on my pain?
I am a woman and I really need to know why it is that men can derive sexual pleasure from terrorising, humiliating, degrading and brutalising us. Because this is one of the fundamental questions which is never asked. There is always an underlying assumption that it is somehow a 'normal' and inevitable, if somewhat regrettable, part of male sexuality and therefore beyond question. But I need to know the political reasons, why should this be so?
There are other questions, too. Why, for instance, does a preparedness to sexually brutalise a woman often seem to enhance a man’s sense of his own masculinity, both in his own estimation and in that of other men? What are the links between rape, sexual brutality and the social construction of ‘manhood’?
And are all men the same - potential or actual rapists? What, for instance, makes one man rape and another not? In what ways can they be said to be different and in what ways the same? What factors are operating which determine their behaviour? And whose interests are being served?”
In November 1966, five men were chosen by their commanding officer, Lieutenant Reilly, to go on a dangerous mission to comb an area of the Central Highlands for signs of Viet Cong activity. At the end of the pre-mission briefing the leader that Reilly chose for the exercise, Sergeant Meserve, told the other four men, Corporal Clarke and Privates Rafe Diaz, Manuel Diaz, and Eriksson, that they would leave early to “get a woman for the purpose of boom-boom”, and at the end of the five day mission they would kill her.
Meserve and Clarke abducted a woman, Mao, from a hut in a hamlet on their way to Hill 192. Later, in another hut on Hill 192, they imprisoned Mao, and four of the men raped her in turn. At the end of the mission, Clarke stabbed Mao with his hunting knife, but she seemed to survive, so Meserve ordered all the men to shoot her with their rifles.
One of the men, Eriksson, had not participated in the rapes, or the murder. When the mission ended, he reported the crimes to Reilly, whose response was dismissive. Reilly did, however, inform his superior, Captain Vorst, who advised .Eriksson not to push his charges. When it came to court martial, defence lawyers tried to paint Eriksson as a coward who fabricated the charges in order to escape more hazardous missions, while defence witnesses extolled the four men’s gallantry in battle. The four men were eventually found guilty, dishonourably discharged, and given prison sentences.
I remember Angela going through Lang’s account of the rape, and trying to work out what beliefs each of the men had absorbed about ‘manhood’, and how they perceived their position in relation to other men. Here are some of her insights:
Sergeant Meserve (20)
“Meserve is a ‘real man’. He is tough, assertive, and confident. It is Meserve’s plan to give his men a ‘good time’, by seeing that ‘they find themselves a girl and take her along for the morale of the squad.’ When they reach Hill 192, and have had lunch, he tells his men ‘it’s time for some fun’. Disturbed by Eriksson’s reluctance to participate, he demonstrates his contempt for any man who is not really a ‘man’, deriding Eriksson as ‘queer’ and ‘chicken’. He shows the others what a ‘real man’ is by going into the hut and raping Mao. He dispenses his favours by deciding which man will be next in to rape Mao. When all except Eriksson have taken part, Meserve invites them to eat together again and share the cameraderie of swapping stories about women they have ‘had’.
The next day Meserve is more interested in military action than in rape. Mao has become a burden, and he wants her killed.. He plans his tactics to incriminate the whole group. When Eriksson, Rafe and Manuel, are reluctant, he arranges for Clarke to knife her, and for the rest of the group to fire on her until she is dead.”
Corporal Clarke (22)
“Clarke, Mesure’s second in command, admires and respects Meserve’s manliness. He is insecure in his estimation of his own ‘manhood’, and seeks to continually to prove it to himself and to the others. It is Clarke who joins Meserve to search for and abduct a woman at the start of the mission. When Mao is taken from her hut, her mother implores the soldiers to let Mao have her scarf. Clarke seizes it, and stuffs it in Mao’s mouth to keep her from crying out.
When Meserve indicates it is time to ‘have some fun’ Clarke is ‘beside himself in anticipation.’. When Meserve tells Eriksson that he might find himself among the ‘friendly casualties’ of war if he refuses to join the gang rape, Clarke seconds the threat. When Rafe goes into the hut to rape Mao, Clarke watches through a hole in the mud facade and lets out whoops of delight that mingle with Mao’s cries. Invited by Meserve to be the third man, he worries he won’t be able to get an erection, calling in question his ‘manhood’. His 10 inch hunting knife reassures him, and he uses it to terrify Mao inside the hut. He re-emerges, boasting that “I held a knife to her throat” and shows them the knife. Later, he uses his knife again to kill Mao. When she initially seems to survive his attack, prompting Meserve to order the whole group to shoot her, Clarke swears “Why, that bitch. I stabbed her more than twice.” .
Private Rafe Diaz (21)
“Both Rafe and his cousin Manuel laughed when Meserve first suggested taking a woman along ‘for the morale of the squad’, and it is Rafe who points out Mao’s presence in a hut when they enter her hamlet . He tells Meserve and Clarke: ‘There’s a pretty girl in there. She has a gold tooth.’
Later, at the court martial, Rafe testified that he could not have withstood the ‘epithets he heard Meserve heap on Eriksson that day. It was his fear of such derision that finally made him choose to enter the hut and rape Mao. He found Mao in the hut, ‘naked , lying on the table, her hands bound behind her back. She looked so innocent, so calm.’ Perhaps aware that he was being observed by Clarke, he went ahead and raped Mao. Clarke’s whoops of delight must have served to reassure him that he had passed the test, and spared himself the ridicule and derision heaped on those considered ‘less-than-real men’.
During an engagement with the Viet Cong which followed Mao’s murder, Rafe was injured, and had to be flown to safety by medical helicopter. In hospital he talked freely to his fellow patients, but never mentioned Mao. Later he said he was afraid to mention it because he did not know what Meserve and Clarke would do.
Rafe was the only one of the four court-martialled soldiers to show any remorse., and the only one to break ranks and testify against Clarke.”
Private Manuel Diaz (21)
“Manuel is married, with a 3 month old baby daughter. He has a greater regard for authority than his cousin Rafe. He doesn’t question orders, he simply obeys them. It is important to him to be accepted as ‘one of the guys’. Manuel is impressed by Clarke’s stuffing the scarf into Mao’s mouth, and the contempt for the two women this demonstrates. He responds by forcing Mao to carry his pack on the long climb up to Hill 192. Like his cousin, Manuel is horrified by the verbal abuse heaped on Eriksson when he refuses to rape Mao.
Later, asked in Court why he had raped Mao, Manuel explained ‘I was afraid of being ridiculed, Sir.’ He felt a deep sense of injustice to find himself on trial - during his training it had been drummed into him that he was to obey orders without question.”
Private Eriksson (22)
“Eriksson (22) is quieter than the others, and engaged to be married. He feels exhilarated at being sent on a field mission, and looks forward to ‘dealing with the unexpected.’ He is disturbed when Meserve outlines his intention to kidnap, rape and murder a Vietnamese woman., and shares his concern with a friend. Meserve ‘would never do so such a fool thing’, the friend advises.
At the hamlet, Eriksson realises that Meserve had been serious and becomes withdrawn. When Meserve asks him if he will enter the hut when it’s his turn, Eriksson shakes his head, and remains silent while Meserve lets out his stream of threats.
When asked in Court what he was feeling when Mao was being raped, he said ‘Well, Sir, I was wishing I wasn’t in the situation I was in.’ But when he heard a high, piercing moan coming from the hut, his self-protective dissociation broke down, and he was thrown into ‘ a turmoil I had never before experienced.’. It crosses his mind ‘to shoot her assailants’, but then realises he would have the bodies of four men to justify.
Later, he is left alone to guard Mao. He is in turmoil again. He enters the hut, and she backs away from him, cringing and weeping, thinking he has come to rape her. Eriksson gives her some food. ‘It was whimper, then eat, whimper, then eat. She kept looking at me, as though she was trying to guess what my game could be.’
He goes outside to think what to do. To let her go? But how to explain it to Meserve? To go off with her and hide in the bush until the third day when the patrol was due to rendezvous with another unit? Maybe that unit would help them? But he couldn’t think any of it through.
He is convinced the rest of the patrol are out to get him, that they are close by, and that if he makes a false move they will open fire on both of them. Ultimately it is Eriksson’s fear of the other men which wins out over his humanity and his conscience. When he returns into the hut he knows he is going to leave Mao to her fate - ‘I had decided outside there wasn’t a thing in the world I could do for her.’
The next morning, Meserve tells Eriksson that as he wouldn’t rape Mao, he has to be the one to kill her, and that he will be killed if he refused. To his relief Meserve does not follow through on his threat. Later, when all five men are supposed to shoot Mao, he fires away from her.
Up to this point, Eriksson has been a passive objector, disapproving of the other men’s actions, and taking no part himself. But he has not actively intervened, either to prevent the rape or to facilitate Mao’s escape. His fear of the other men had paralysed him.. He realises that if he does not speak out, Mao’s death will remain a secret. Deploring what these men have done and remaining silent is not enough - he has to report it. Having no experience of how crimes against women are dealt with by the authorities, he believes that justice will prevail, and that the men will pay the price for their crimes.”
“Reilly expresses no dismay when Eriksson reports what has happened on Hill 192. Instead he recounts his experience, three years earlier, of taking his wife, in an advanced stage of labour, to an Alabama hospital and them being refused admittance because they were black. His wife had to give birth on the floor of the hospital’s reception. Wild with rage, Reilly had tried to wreck the place., and he was jailed.
‘By the time I got out of jail’, he tells Eriksson, ‘I was saying to myself What’s happened is the way things are, so why try to buck the system.’ He advises Ericsson to do the same, and accept these things happen, especially in war time.
The rape and murder of a Vitnemese woman by four of his men is of little concern to Reilly. But the prospect of word leaking out and possibly tarnishing the image of his Company is a worry., so he refers it up to his superior, Captain Vorst.”
‘When Vorst hears what has happened, he summons Meserve, Larke, and Manuel Diaz (Rate was in hospital) and confronts them with what Eriksson has told him. At first the three men deny all knowledge. Vorst verbally reprimands them, and, telling them he could have them court martialled, he breaks up the platoon, warning them not to let anything ‘happen’ to Eriksson.
The next day, Vorst sends for Eriksson. Like Reilly, he does not condemn his men’s behaviour. Instead he stresses the importance of avoiding scandal. And he warns Eriksson that if it goes to court martial he will be given a rough time.
Days pass, and Eriksson asks to see Vorst again, to find out if charges are being pressed. Vorst doesn’t answer, and instead asked a series of questions. Has Eriksson thought it through? Haven’t the American people suffered enough on behalf of the Vietnamese? Has he thought of the consequences for himself if he accused four fellow GIs?. Military jurists, he says, didn’t expect soldiers to be on their best behaviour a war zone., and even if there was a guilty verdict, the men would be given light sentences. Has he thought that when they were out they might seek revenge, and that the victim might be his wife?”
“Kirk is a chaplain at the Camp, who Eriksson approaches to share the story of Mao’s abduction, rape and murder. Initially sceptical, Kirk believes Eriksson and reports the crime to the Criminal Investigation Division who, after investigating the crime scene and finding the remains of Mao’s body, set up a Court Martial.”
“Before the trial begins the prosecutor warns Eriksson, as Vorst had done, of the possible threat to himself and his wife of testifying against the four men. He warns, too, that the defence would try and portray Eriksson as “some sort of failed nut” for not “joining in the festivities”.
The main defence strategy is to present Eriksson as a pitiful specimen of a man, with whom few men in the courtroom would wish to identify. He is accused of weakness and cowardice, a man who would sacrifice his fellow GIs to save himself. It is suggested that he had fabricated the charges to escape further hazardous assignments. Witnesses are called to testify that Eriksson didn’t joke as much as the others - he was a bit of a loner, not really ‘one of the guys’.
The defendants, in contrast are portrayed as the embodiment of ‘manly’ virtues. Witnesses, including Reilly and Vorst, praise their gallantry, sense of duty, and loyalty. Meserve receives particular praise, Reilly describing him as “one of the best combat soldiers I have known.”. Many of the witnesses deplore the fact that the men are on trial, when they would be better employed on the battlefield.”
The men are eventually found guilty, and given jail sentences ranging from eight years for Rafe to 20 years for Clarke.
The social construction of male sexuality
“Male sexuality, as we know it, is socially constructed around demonstrating a man’s distance from, and superiority to, a woman. This is why sexually abusing women can give men pleasure. The pleasure derives quite simply from having the power to denigrate another human being and in so doing elevate oneself.
Whenever a group of men gang together to rape and assault a woman they are celebrating the power of maleness - the phallus as a weapon , the never-ending victory over women as a conquered and vanquished sex. This celebration binds them together. It gives them a sense of themselves. It confirms them in their own masculinity. And it is this unspoken knowledge and understanding that makes the other men sympathetic towards and supportive of the four rapists/murderers. It is these same shared values which make the male institutions/law/authority support and protect male sexual brutality to women, whilst at the same time presenting a public image of condemning and punishing it.
This is the core of male sexuality into which all men are socialised, some more successfully than others. Meserve, for instance, the most brutal of the men, stands out amongst the others as the most admired for his ‘manliness,’ Eriksson, on the other hand, stands out as unusual, odd, not really ‘one of the guys.’ This is because his sexual conditioning is faulty. He breaks with the other men. Because he identifies with the humanity of the woman, he is thrown into intense turmoil. This poses a threat to the four men, not only to the threat to their physical security through the possibility of detection, but also to their group identity. They attack his ‘manhood’, hoping that by extreme ridicule, scorn and the threat of exclusion physical violence, they may yet force him into conformity. This is how men police other men.
I am chilled and afraid about what the sexual brutalisation and murder of Mao reveals to me about the nature of male sexuality. I have every reason to fear it, because as Eriksson recalls a year later; ‘They (the four rapists/murderers) were among the ones - among the few - who did what everyone around them wanted to do.’”
To be continued - Casualties of War as interpreted by Hollywood (and Robert Bly)
Please write about your thoughts on the current attack on women by the transgender women's ideology (and the funding and participation in it by former military biological males) insisting on entering women's spaces and being consider on par with biological women. And the general society' s eagerness to accept this ideology.