In today’s Quickies, Amanda posted a BBC article about Japan forcing women to serve “comfort” roles for Japanese soldiers during WWII.

It’s sick. And the Mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, is unapologetic about it, describing “comfort women” as a necessary need for soldiers.

At first I was shocked and horrified. How can you promote and justify sending women on a tour of duty that involves doing nothing but being raped for several years? I’m still horrified, but the more I think about it, I’m maybe less shocked.

We’re talking about war and a government who demands every single one of its male citizens is forced to serve in that war. They are merely bodies. Their job is to kill and be killed and are easily replacable. They are not individual men, but sacrificial game pieces. As long as men can be churned out as fast as they’re killed off, their country still has a chance to win the war. And men will be sent to die as long as they were born male. Hopefully you’ll live, but even if you do, you’re probably not coming out undamaged, un-scarred, and without having seen great horrors. But it doesn’t matter, you don’t matter. People don’t matter. The only thing that matters is having a large arsenal of usable bodies. In this context, is it surprising that women are also treated as disposable objects? Sent to serve a job without even a nod to their humanity?

I suppose the women being sent is, in a way, a nod to the men’s humanity, an understanding that these men have at least one need. But even in that nod, the men are reduced to primal beings.

But then, Japanese women were not the ones sent to be military sex-slaves. It was women from Japanese territories. Because it’s a horrible “job” and an indecent thing to force someone to do, so Japan wouldn’t send their own women; they sent the lesser ones. So maybe that is a nod to the humanity of women, while utterly disregarding it, which is perhaps worse than no nod at all.

And maybe it’s telling that we look at these war-time crimes against women as horrific, but are desensitized to the plight of men who are forced to fight in wars.

It’s not really a discussion of “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MENZ!” as much as me just wondering what it is that shocks us about war. Why is it that we kind of accept a certain extremely-high level of incomprehensible horror, but then are shocked and horrified when we find out that other horrors exist within that reality. Like that we accept sometimes we have to kill civilians as collateral damage, destroy homes and families and local economies… but “enhanced interrogation” is too far. Because that particular horror is against the rules (actual rules and our rules of “decent war”.)

So I guess my question is, where do we draw these lines? How do we decide that “comfort women” is breathtaking and shocking in its lack of humanity but war itself is not surprising? Is “comfort women” a thing that is worse than mandatory military service? How? Why? Or is it all equally awful and it’s just that we’re shocked when we are exposed to the details of it all?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.

Featured image: Horrors of War Bubble Gum card

Elyse

Elyse

Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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35 Comments

  1. Avatar of Bjornar
    May 14, 2013 at 3:25 pm —

    For me it’s quite simple. As horrible as war is, sometimes it seems necessary, countries manage to wage it even with volunteers some of the time, and only regimes I don’t identify with appear to have had a system of military sex-slaves recently, so it’s an unnecessary and additional horror that is rationally worse than war.

  2. Avatar of klatu
    May 14, 2013 at 4:53 pm —

    [TRIGGER WARNING: rape, torture]

    History seems to suggest that things like forced prostitution and sexual slavery, rape and torture as a weapon, rape camps even, etc* are part of the reality of war itself.
    I’m not sure whether it’s even possible to seperate war as a phenomenon from crimes commited primarily as a feature of war. Somehow I doubt that there has ever been a “clean” war.
    The only constant seems to be the dehumanization of people for the purpose of humiliation and annihilation.
    On the bright side, at least the Geneva convention prohibits these thing as human rights violations, for whatever that’s worth in pratice…
    At least it’s come to a point where it is not entirely taboo to visibly examine the awful roles women are so often forced into during wartimes.

    @Bjornar
    Depends on what you mean by “recently”. Abu Ghraib happened in 2004, the Rwandan genocide in 1994. We do not live in a more civilized age.

    * see:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_camp_brothels_in_World_War_II
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_military_brothels_in_World_War_II
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_rape
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Ghraib_torture_and_prisoner_abuse
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vilina_Vlas

    • Avatar of Bjornar
      May 15, 2013 at 3:28 pm —

      How does Abu Ghraib and the Rwandan genocide constitute “a system of military sex-slaves”? You appear to have read my “recently” in an entirely different sentence than the one I posted.
      Just to make it clear, I consider prisoner abuse and genocide unnecessary and additional horrors rationally worse than war as well.

  3. Avatar of Jack99
    May 14, 2013 at 5:08 pm —

    I think the answer to many of those questions is that we can’t grok the full horror of war because the scale of it all just numbs our imagination. Only when we break it down into smaller and in a sense more human parts can we begin to comprehend, and this story is one such part. In the same way we can empathise with a single death more easily than 50 million.

    • Avatar of Siveambrai
      May 14, 2013 at 5:18 pm —

      This is one of the best uses of the verb grok I think I’ve seen. Because that’s exactly the point, full, knowing comprehension is beyond us.

      I think modern war is a bit of a beast to deal with 1) we’re often dealing with huge numbers of people so that our brains ability to see them as people and not a mass breaks down. The details of things like the comfort women are important because they bring that mass down to individuals in a way that we can process. The side by side images of soldiers before/during/after war does the same. 2) modern communication networks means that we receiving this information almost constantly so it loses its exceptionalism, something that was much more difficult even as recently as vietnam. Previously we weren’t inundated with images AND nations weren’t aware of the importance of image curation and messaging to the public. I’ve recently touched on this theme in a presentation I gave at the Media in Transition 8 conference if you’d like to see the (not polished) paper it can be found here: http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/mit8/papers/Blodgett_Salter.pdf

      • Avatar of Jack99
        May 14, 2013 at 5:43 pm —

        Ah cool! I’ll have a good look later but have to go to work right now.

  4. Avatar of Jack99
    May 14, 2013 at 6:24 pm —

    So the previous was a response to Q#2 and to the final statement, which I tend to agree with.
    Was “comfort women” worse than mandatory military service? Yes because the chance of becoming a casualty even in a combat unit was on average 35% IIRC so the odds were with you to come through unscathed. Above all for most people you were fighting back against the enemy so the risks were worth taking.

    I would stipulate in addition though, there is something particularly nasty about being a victim of calculated cruelty and sadism. A better comparison might be, would you rather be raped than tortured? I think that’s a highly individual thing, and a bit like asking if you would rather have lung cancer or oesophageal cancer. So I’ll go with “equally awful” in your final statement.

  5. Avatar of KJ
    May 14, 2013 at 7:11 pm —

    As abhorrent as war is, the sad thing is it only takes one side to wage a war. It takes both sides to make peace. War is bad, any way you look at it, but what is done during war can make it worse. One of my close Norwegian relatives was a member of the Norwegian Resistance during WW2. He was captured and sent to a camp near the polish border with Russia; the camp was liberated by the Russian Army in 1945.

    Yes, even by the standards of war things can be much worse than the pain and losses that are the “normal” result of modern warfare. The same thing goes for the “comfort girls” the Japanese forced into service during WW2. There is bad (normal warfare) and there is worse. This is “worse”, and for this man to pass it off as normal and ordinary is repulsive and disgusting. Add to that the fact that Japanese history glosses over the atrocities committed by the Japanese Government and Armed Forces and you have a unrepentant country that could easily repeat those crimes again. Sad, so sad.

  6. Avatar of That Moz Guy
    May 14, 2013 at 7:44 pm —

    I don’t get the “some men survive” difference – almost all the “comfort women” survive too, and in general the death rate from rape is wartime is lower than the death rate for soldiers. I think that makes the comparison invalid.

    I tie this back to the ongoing problem of violence within military organisations. We select and train a group of people to be violent, then wonder why the violence is not generated strictly as directed. FFS, sports teams can’t do it and they have a much higher thug to spectator ratio as well as explcitly having referees. Why would we expect people supposed to commit murder on command without referees to draw the line at a little recreational rape and pillage? I don’t see that as a reason not to try to limit the violence, or as an excuse for those committing it, but I do think it’s a mitigating factor.

    The bigger issue, IMO, is the ruling class and their hands-off approach to ordering violence. That problem should, I think, be solvable, I just don’t know how. From the mayor above explaining that organised rape camps are necessary to Assad using the same rationale for using chemical weapons on civilians, it seems to be ridiculously easy for people to pretend that awful violence they order is a minor thing. Right up to the common complaint “we invaded and occupied their country, how dare they fight back?” that you hear from Israelis and USAians today.

    • Avatar of Buzz Parsec
      May 14, 2013 at 7:59 pm —

      35% casualties includes deaths, but it also includes wounded, missing and captured. At least 65% of the soldiers survived unscathed, probably much more. 100% of the “comfort women” were raped, repeatedly often many times a day.

      It’s bad enough when out-of-control people commit atrocities in violation of their orders with at least some small chance of eventually being prosecuted. It’s far worse when that is the deliberate policy of their leaders.

      • Avatar of Mankoi
        May 14, 2013 at 8:26 pm —

        I’m not sure if anyone survives “unscathed” from war. Not physically injured, sure, but the numbers don’t appear to take into account PTSD, which can easily affect people not directly injured, or any other form of trauma. Even people who never see combat may face trauma from simply being put in a strange place, away from their loved ones, and living with the fear that they may be attacked and killed, or may have to live with killing someone else. Not to mention the standard indoctrination soldiers are put through to try and train them to aim to hit and kill another human being.

        I’m not saying that this is worse than being made into a sex slave, but there is a lot more to war than just the combat and physical risks.

  7. Avatar of Josh K
    May 14, 2013 at 9:42 pm —

    No.
    Yes, we can accept that bad things happen, and that mistakes get made … but there enough horrors without actually institutionalizing them.

  8. Avatar of greenstone123
    May 14, 2013 at 9:52 pm —

    Soldiers are people. The military is a human construct. Professional soldiering is not ALL war. You train for war and prepare for war, but you are still a human being. All your thoughts, feelings, emotions, needs are that of a human being. I don’t like it when I hear statements like ‘it is just so awful that I can’t understand’. It is all understandable, I just wish people would take a stance this is intolerable and make no excuses for bad behavior.

    I read a little more about comfort women on Wikipedia and the whole thing is pretty intolerable! The ‘comfort women’ aka sex slavery is a crime against humanity.

    I was in the Iraq War. I had to do things during my service that would be considered monstrous in the everyday world. But these were things that were required to complete the mission. I am also a human being and on my own time, I conduct myself as a human being that does not participate in perpetuating horror. The hard part is that many soldiers are young and impressionable. They are use to taking orders. I can’t speak for Japanese soldiering, but as a US soldier it is extremely difficult to challenge the culture of the military. I can only imagine that someone with PTSD that is suffering horribly, who is not being treated well and their only outlet is apparently ‘comfort women’. WTF! Wouldn’t it be nice instead to ensure that needs be met, without hurting others? Are these same people able to communicate with their families? Are they getting regular meals? Are they getting adequate rest and health care? Or is it just easier to call soldiers a bunch of animals and treat them as such?

    On a personal note though, this does make me wonder about Japanese soldiering. What is it like? I have witnessed different soldiering from different countries and different branches of service. It is always interesting to see where priorities are set and how things are done. Off to google land. :)

    • Avatar of Jack99
      May 15, 2013 at 12:29 am —

      Maybe worth noting that Japan was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention during WWII although Germany was. Many have argued that that makes the Nazis even more culpable than the Japanese miltarists for war crimes commitrted.

      My previous answers to Elyse’s “equally awful” questions were from the POV of a victim of War (a comfort woman or a tortured POW, for instance, or perhaps a badly burned airman with a lifetime of surgery in store) rather than that of the war criminals. Relative moral culpability and guilt is an interesting question, when we consider that the initial zest for Nazi hunting moderated rather quickly when the Cold War got underway in earnest.

      • Avatar of greenstone123
        May 15, 2013 at 2:19 am —

        I stand by ‘comfort women’ situation as a crime against humanity. Breaking the rules of the Geneva Convention is a war crime. These two seem similar, but are different. I believe that the Forth Geneva Convention ‘Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War’ came after WWII. (I am not an expert on the Geneva Convention’s history and the social function on how it shakes down to those in uniforms elsewhere especially during the time period even if your country was to sign off on it. If you are interested to know, as a modern US soldier, we were reminded of the details of the Geneva Convention from time to time during the war and instructed how we were to respond to tricky enemy combatants.) From your earlier comment, (and I completely agree) we can’t say degrees of worse for the individuals that endure such horrors.

        Here is where the moral dilemma is for me. The other situations that you talked about get solved with time. We can build better equipment to protect airman from burns; we can obtain better ways of getting information. These are real problems that are being worked on every day. (Not to say that people won’t get burned or we don’t try to extract information from human sources, it is just that militaries invest a great deal of time and effort into improving these areas of warfare.) But with the ‘comfort women’ situation, we have to choose to not rape and pillage and not make up excuses for, in this case sex slavery. “Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto said on Monday that the “comfort women” gave Japanese soldiers a chance “to rest”” and “If you want them to have a rest in such a situation, a comfort women system is necessary. Anyone can understand that.” UGG! Hashimoto is making this statement in the present day. He opens the door for allowing it in the future.

        That thing that you said about relative culpability and guilt, that is a tricky question, especially if there is no smoking gun leading back to individuals. There are only so many fingers a person can point: society, governments, those preying on the weak, those who should have done better planning, social customs, the soldiers that messed up, those who looked the other way, people who should have invested in better technologies, etc, etc.

        I wish we could do away with the term ‘comfort women’. Maybe I will send Hashimoto an email telling him he confused his mom with human beings that were raped to death. I don’t think he would get it.

        • Avatar of Jack99
          May 15, 2013 at 2:42 am —

          Greenstone, I agree with all you say. It is true I was conflating war crimes with crimes against humanity and speaking in very general terms.

        • Avatar of Jack99
          May 15, 2013 at 3:32 am —

          If you do send that email, you could put in a PS from me and tell him that I had him confused with a disease. He might get that.

    • Avatar of Jack99
      May 15, 2013 at 12:55 am —

      On the subject of justice though, I have been heavily influenced by this book “Exemplary Justice”, in which the criminals responsible for the murder of 50 Allied airmen in The Great Escape were brought to justice under International Law.
      .http://www.amazon.co.uk/Exemplary-Justice-Allen-Andrews/dp/0245527753
      In short the criminals must be pursued unrelentingly no matter what the odds and regardless of how much time has passed.

  9. Avatar of weatherwax
    May 14, 2013 at 9:57 pm —

    To be very clear, these were not Japanese women, these were the women from the conquered territories. (And no, it wouldn’t be OK if it was Japanese women).

    And they didn’t serve a tour, they were put into prisons to be raped and beaten until they died.

  10. Avatar of Mark Thomas
    May 14, 2013 at 11:44 pm —

    As an amateur military historian and someone who has been to combat three times – and failed to come through physically unscathed – let me offer an opinion.

    WWII began almost 75 years ago. It’s hard for us to imagine what life was like back then – the differences in culture, technology, etc. Japanese society today bears scant resemblance to its society pre-WWII – largely due to the constitution drafted by GEN MacArthur and his staff – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_Japan. Prior to this time, the Japanese held a belief in common with Hitler and the Germans – that of racial superiority, they believed the Japanese race was superior to all others. “The Japanese justified their conquests in Asia with the belief that they were culturally and racially superior to other Asians. Summing up a prevailing view, one industrialist said, the Japanese were “sole superior race in the world.” http://factsanddetails.com/Asian.php?itemid=2538&catid=67&subcatid=426

    Study the Rape of Nanking (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanking_Massacre#Rape) to get a sense of exactly how brutal/barbaric/despicable the actions of Japanese soldiers are towards “lesser races” during this period. By comparison “comfort women” – who according to the linked article were “lesser races” from countries outside Japan – got off easy and their treatment is shocking only when compared to current values/norms, not necessarily the values/norms of the Japanese at the time.

    I often wonder how our modern society would deal with an event as broad and horrible in scope as WWII – the generation which fought through it isn’t called “The Greatest Generation” for nothing. Our current conflicts seem quaint by comparison. For example, civilians weren’t “collateral damage” during WWII, they were often a legitimate target for bombing raids, part of the overall “war machine”. As our technology has improved so has our ability to discriminate – to the point where we can put a laser-guided bomb through a specific portion of one of Saddam’s many palaces, and years later I could live for 6 mos in an unaffected part of that same palace.

    However accurate our ability to deliver weaponry is, our ability to target that weaponry – as well as our ability to determine exactly who is within the lethal radius of that weaponry – is less precise. Here we arrive at our current dilemma with, among other things, drone strikes. I’ve watched them occur, live, and I can relate that the decision to release ordinance from a drone is not taken lightly and is subject to many layers of operational and legal scrutiny.

    When innocent civilians are injured or killed as a result of that decision, it is a tragedy – and no one feels that more than the operator who pulled the trigger. However it is a tragedy resulting from our best efforts and our best intentions, and this is the key area where we differ from the terrorists we’re fighting in Afghanistan and have fought in Iraq.

    These terrorists revel in the killing of civilians – it is, in fact, part of their strategy. At the hands of these terrorists I’ve seen dead American soldiers, but I’ve seen countless more dead Iraqi and Afghan civilians. The gruesome videos they post to the internet (a couple of which portray attacks against my unit) are not the exception, they are the rule. It is barbarism not unlike the Japanese massacre at Nanking, albeit on a much, much smaller scale.

    This is the context sometimes missed in the popular press here in the US – as bad as something like Abu Ghraib was, for example, in the context of Iraq it did not approach the barbarism/brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime or the terrorists we were, at the time, fighting.

    But I’m digressing a bit – if the question is where do we draw the lines on what is “right” and “wrong” in warfare then the answer has to be within the generally accepted Geneva conventions – and I can personally report that only one side in Iraq and Afghanistan was committed to following those principles.

    The two larger issues, as discussed in the comments here, are (1) “the ruling class and their hands-off approach to ordering violence” and (2) “it only takes one side to wage a war. It takes both sides to make peace.”

    There’s nothing to do about #2 – as long as there are aggressors we will be forced to fight them. And the only way to solve #1 is for a significant portion of the ruling class to have experienced combat – those who have been there know best the perils of ever going back there again.

    • Avatar of Will
      May 15, 2013 at 12:04 am —

      Study the Rape of Nanking (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanking_Massacre#Rape) to get a sense of exactly how brutal/barbaric/despicable the actions of Japanese soldiers are towards “lesser races” during this period. By comparison “comfort women” – who according to the linked article were “lesser races” from countries outside Japan – got off easy and their treatment is shocking only when compared to current values/norms, not necessarily the values/norms of the Japanese at the time.

      This is the context sometimes missed in the popular press here in the US – as bad as something like Abu Ghraib was, for example, in the context of Iraq it did not approach the barbarism/brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime or the terrorists we were, at the time, fighting.

      Man, you’re on a roll today. I cannot believe you are seriously arguing moral relativism here. The women did not “get off easy” in any sense. Comparing them to some other horrific tragedy just to minimize their treatment? Really?

      We’re all well aware that values change over time. Are you about to argue that the slaves in the US didn’t have it as bad compared to the slaves that built the pyramids and therefore “got off easy”?

      This is not “context”–this is ranking misery according to your own arbitrary standards.

    • Avatar of klatu
      May 15, 2013 at 12:44 am —

      By comparison “comfort women” – who according to the linked article were “lesser races” from countries outside Japan – got off easy and their treatment is shocking only when compared to current values/norms, not necessarily the values/norms of the Japanese at the time.

      I don’t see how that is a useful position to take. The women who were forced into sexual slavery did not have the luxury of looking at this from the outside, to dispassionately compare their situation to other atrocities. The only perspective that is truly relevant to understanding the horrors inflicted on them is their perspective, and it would be highly unreasonable to assume that they thought they were getting off easy while they were being raped to death.
      Similar atrocities were commited on Polish women during WWII by German soldiers. These Polish women were officially seen by the German leadership as ‘goods’ that were ‘distributed’ among their soldiers. It was state-mandated de-humanization, not an act of unthinking savagery, but a calculated war effort.
      The survivors were systematically shamed and silenced by their own government, well up into the 90s, when documents pertaining to their forced prostitution were finally unsealed. Such efforts to erase that kind of perspective from history probably contribute to the fact that most people will not think of rape and torture as common war strategies. Probably the only reason we are even discussing this at all is that modern information technology makes it easier to find such ‘details’.
      Framing these atrocities as meaningless to the larger context because there were arguably worse atrocities commited elsewhere serves only to desensitize us to the reality of war. The occurence of particularly vile human rights violations does not make the ocean of lesser human rights violations dissappear.

      • Avatar of criticaldragon1177
        May 15, 2013 at 1:32 am —

        klatu,

        Good point, also, as bad as it is to get raped even once, getting raped repeatedly, over and over again, is even worse, especially if they people doing so are an invading arming that’s trying to conquer and occupy your country.

      • Avatar of scribe999
        May 15, 2013 at 2:34 am —

        I don’t understand that statement at all. We have to look at the comfort women sexual slavery in terms of “Japanese norms”, but in the same sentence, we condemn them for the level of brutality for the Rape of Nanking, by our own moral compass I assume? Then we have to look at Abu Ghraib in context with Saddam Hussein’s brutality who we’re judging, again I can only assume, by our own standards. This is an inconsistent mess of moral relativism.

        Also, as for “got off easy” — TRIGGER WARNING
        http://www.awf.or.jp/e3/oralhistory-00.html

        Kimiko Kaneda (South Korea)

        —————–

        How did I feel? I felt as if we were taken here to be killed. I could not but weep. No one talked. All were weeping. That night we slept there and in the morning we were put in those rooms. Soldiers came to my room, but I resisted with all my might. The first soldier wasn’t drunk and when he tried to rip my clothes off, I shouted “No!” and he left. The second soldier was drunk. He waved a knife at me and threatened to kill me if I didn’t do what he said. But I didn’t care if I died, and in the end he stabbed me. Here( She pointed her chest).
        He was taken away by the military police and I was taken to the infirmary. My clothes were soaked with blood. I was treated in the infirmary for twenty days. I was sent back to my room. A soldier who had just returned from the fighting came in. Thanks to the treatment my wound was much improved, but I had a plaster on my chest.
        Despite that the soldier attacked me, and when I wouldn’t do what he said, he seized my wrists and threw me out of the room. My wrists were broken, and they are still very weak. Here was broken…. There’s no bone here. I was kicked by a soldier here. It took the skin right off… you could see the bone.

        In the comfort station in Shijiazhuang
        When the soldiers came back from the battlefields, as many as 20 men would come to my room from early morning. That’s why I had to have a hysterectomy (in my twenties). They rounded up little girls still in school. Their genitals were still underdeveloped, so they became torn and infected. There was no medicine except something to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and Mercurochrome. They got sick, their sores became septic, but there was no treatment.

        The soldiers made Chinese laborers lay straw in the trenches and the girls were put in there. There was no bedding… underneath was earth. There was no electricity at that time, only oil lamps, but they weren’t even given a lamp. They cried in the dark “Mummy, it hurts! Mummy, I’m hungry!” We wanted to go and give them our leftover food, but there were a lot of sick and disturbed people in the trenches. Some of them had TB. I was scared they might pull me in to the trenches, and I didn’t want to go there. I could have gone if I had a lamp.
        When someone died the girls got scared and began to cry. Then everyone in the trenches was poisoned and they closed up the trench. They dug another trench next to it.

        ————————————

        • Avatar of Jack99
          May 15, 2013 at 9:32 pm —

          Scribe, we must never forget this. Not in order to prolong hatred, but so we can take steps to ensure that this never happens again

    • Avatar of Infophile
      May 15, 2013 at 1:30 am —

      We wouldn’t be having this discussion today if it weren’t for the mayor of Osaka saying that there was nothing wrong with the use of “comfort” women. Moral relativism might have a role to play if we were looking back and asking how it could have happened then (as it wouldn’t have struck people back then as so horrific, particularly not Japanese people), but the question is: Why the hell doesn’t Hashimoto see this as horrific today? (I have my theories – Japan has whitewashed a lot of their imperial history, and so it wouldn’t be surprising if, as a result, Hashimoto honestly believes these “comfort” women were in fact volunteers, and he’s uninformed of the abuses they were put through, or doesn’t want to believe it as it’ll hurt his ego to view Japan as imperfect.)

      TRIGGER WARNING FOR RAPE BELOW THIS POINT

      There is a lot of digression in your post, so I’ll skip over that and address your key point: “if the question is where do we draw the lines on what is “right” and “wrong” in warfare then the answer has to be within the generally accepted Geneva conventions.” To clarify for those who aren’t familiar with the theories behind the rules of war, a naive interpretation would be that they have the goal of ending wars as quickly as possible and to minimize damage. Putting a soldier on the front line to invade an enemy city? Necessary damage (to them and the enemy). Killing one of the enemy’s medic’s who’s trying to keep a wounded enemy soldier from dying? Unnecessary damage. Bombing an enemy airport? Acceptable. Bombing an enemy daycare? Unacceptable…?

      But wait a minute… Wars aren’t won by crushing the enemy’s ability to fight; they’re won by crushing their will to fight. Bombing a daycare serves to demoralize the enemy, and make them question whether resistance is worth it, so doesn’t this actually work toward ending the war? By the same heartless logic, raping all the women in conquered cities also serves to demoralize them and help crush their will to fight. Heartless, immoral, ugly acts may actually end wars faster than honorable combat. So, this naive interpretation behind the rules of war doesn’t do anything to prevent atrocities; in fact, it might even enable them.

      The rules of war are complicated, because it’s a complicated moral issue that humanity as a whole has wrestled with throughout its entire existence. There isn’t a single overarching philosophy you can point to that will neatly explain which actions are against the rules of war and which aren’t. At best, you can narrow it down to a handful of goals (which are often contradictory in practice; a lot of extra rules come up to handle all the cases where they contradict):
      1. Wars should be brought to an end as quickly as possible.
      2. Surrender of combatants and nations and should be accepted if a. offered unconditionally or b. offered in a manner that fulfills the victor’s goals for the war (eg. surrender of a trade route, where said trade route was the catalyst for the war, even if the scope had expanded), and such acceptance should not be followed with gratuitous violence against the surrendering party.
      3. Attacks on people and things not contributing to the war effort should be avoided.
      4. Attacks on people and things that do contribute to the war effort are acceptable only up to the point where they can no longer contribute to the war effort (eg. if a fighter pilot bails out of his/her plane, it’s not acceptable to try to kill them, as they aren’t in a position to fight).

      Points 1 and 2 here fall under the umbrella of trying to end a war and restore peace, while 3 and 4 come down to moral arguments: It’s only morally justifiable to use lethal force against someone who’s trying to do the same to you. It’s not justifiable to use force against uninvolved people (and all efforts should be made to avoid this happening by accident), and it’s not justifiable to go beyond the minimum force necessary to subdue an enemy.

      To bring this back to Elyse’s initial question: A lot of horrible things happen in war, but some of the horrible things are necessary byproducts of waging a war, and morally justifiable (in at least a few cases, such as when a nation is defending itself from invasion). Other things aren’t necessary to wage a war. Some of these may help win a war, but that doesn’t make them justifiable. You can justify killing someone if they might kill you if you don’t, but there’s absolutely no way to justify rape.

      I can continue if anyone’s interested. This is a good issue to pick apart, but it really requires a thorough dissection from the very beginning (start with how you define war, and work from there).

      • Avatar of Jack99
        May 15, 2013 at 1:58 am —

        But again, Japan was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention during WWII, so the ordinary rules of war did not apply. That is why, for instance, US sailors got away with machine gunning downed Japanese pilots in the water – and unrestricted submarine warfare – which is why the Allies were unable to prosecute Admiral Doenitz for doing the very same thing. He received a 10 year sentence only, despite blatantly breaking the Geneva Convention.

  11. Avatar of scribe999
    May 15, 2013 at 2:53 am —

    Just want to point out, we do make decisions to scale the level of horrors for almost any crime. Whether it be Murder 1 or 2 or Manslaughter or Negligent Homicide, the outcome of the death of another human being, while consistent, does not necessarily mean that the method of punishment or reform, is similarly consistent. We do make these value judgments all the time. So Elyse’s question is an excellent one…just where do we draw lines? Well, in the case of the types of murder, it seems to my untrained eye at least that the legal system considers a type of ratio between the criminal intent and the amount of “damage” in the outcome. In war, killing another soldier on the battlefield vs. killing an unarmed prisoner recently captured, does have a difference in intent, though outcome is the same. A platoon looting and raping a civilian target without explicit orders from the chain of command vs. an institutionalized system of violence and rape against civilian targets, is a difference of intent on the part of that military AND potentially the damage in the outcome. Conscripting unwilling soldiers to potentially die in a conflict, yet given a TINY bit of agency over their outcome, as opposed to slaves, sexual or otherwise, who will have none, changes that scale of intent/outcome as well.

    I mean, it’s nothing so clinical…we still make emotional decisions surrounding what we consider to be abhorrent. It’s a trickier question than just creating a sliding scale for appropriate levels of outrage and punishment, and who knows if such a thing can be resolved in fully, rationally justifiable way. However, it’s good to unpack these concepts and see how consistent our own moral compass can remain when considering these dilemmas.

  12. Avatar of silencingthebell
    May 15, 2013 at 4:23 am —

    I think that the horror and disgust here is not to do with whether soldiers or ‘comfort women’ had a worse time or whatever, you can debate til the cows come home about the rights and wrongs of what might or might not be justifiable in war … none of this was *morally* ok, it’s about the man himself *now* saying that this behaviour/policy was justifiable. The least **the very least** anyone can do under such a circumstance, is express regret and sorrow that such things happened.

  13. Avatar of Boomer
    May 15, 2013 at 8:53 am —

    There is a difference. A soldier may be “only a soldier,” but each still holds a weapon and has a modicum of control over their person safety. Meanwhile, the safety of ‘comfort women’ in Japan during WWII was entirely at the mercy of those holding them captive and abusing them; namely the soldiers whose job it was to protect them.

    Forcing women (or anyone) to kowtow to the warrior class–because they are, don’tcha know, only laying their lives on the line to “protect” those forced to kowtow–only serves to glorify warfare and lend it legitimacy as a necessary means to an end.

    The only just reason to fight a war is to end practices like slavery, and a soldier’s highest duty is to protect the weak.

  14. Avatar of James Fox
    May 15, 2013 at 1:16 pm —

    Comparing atrocities will always be difficult but for some reason humans always want to categorize, compare and break things down so we can better fathom the horrific actions of other humans. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to make these comparisons because it often gives certain acts some framework to better judge their effects and impact on individuals. I was watching a documentary last week that posed a question about US efforts to get Afghani farmers to stop growing opium poppies. Many of these farmers have stopped growing poppies but many of those who have stopped owed money or had contracts with opium dealers and they have had their children and spouses kidnapped and held for ransom and some families have sold their children into sex slavery because they can’t make enough money to support their families. So what’s worse, cheap heroin or children being kidnapped? The easy answer is both but politics (war on terror vs the war on drugs) don’t let you make a simple choice in every circumstance. As was mentioned above the racism, misogyny and religious beliefs entrenched in Japanese culture certainly made it easier for civilian leaders and the military to force non Japanese and mixed race women into slavery as prostitution. These cultural influences also had a big part in paving the road for Japan to go to war which led to all the military and civilian deaths. If anything making these comparisons for me is a way of appreciating how any individual person’s values, ethics, and view of social responsibility can impact broader political decisions and how leaders act. The mayor who made excuses for the enslavement and serial rape of non Japanese woman has the necessary view and opinion of those events that would allow history to repeat itself.

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