The rending of the soul

A debate over rape in the armed forces is raging in the Senate, pitting one senator against another, and no, it’s not a man-versus-woman thing but rather two female senators.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) wants commanders to be able to sign off on any rape charges brought by the soldiers they lead. She says it will send a message to subordinates that the commanders are in control. But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) favors leaving the commanders out of the equation, fearing that they might either brush aside the charges or contribute to an established atmosphere of intimidation that would allow accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct to wither and die. Still, her measure would also leave sexual assault cases in the hands of the judge advocate generals, senior military lawyers.

Meanwhile in the House, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Cal.) has sponsored the more sweeping Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, which is said to provide civilian review and ensure that victims who speak out won’t be retaliated against.

Sen. Gillibrand and Rep. Speier are on the side of the angels here. If Sen. McCaskill thinks that having the commanders involved sends a message of control, why is the military so rife with sex crimes (an estimated 26,000 in 2012, with only 3,374 sexual assaults reported)? Where was their control then?

Short of murder, there is perhaps no more dehumanizing act a man, woman or child can experience than rape. (Of those estimated 26,000 military sexual assaults, more than half of the victims were men.)  In my novel “Water Music,” one the principal characters, the Iraqi tennis prodigy Alí Iskandar, is repeatedly raped by the American subcontractor who brings the boy back to the States during the Iraq War under false pretenses. Alí later recalls his time with his guardian as not merely the rending of his body but the searing of his soul, and it leads to issues of trust that underscore one of the themes of my book – how the past informs the present, sometimes to devastating effect.

Rape is routinely part of war, one of the “games” men and nations play. The inclusion of women in our armed forces in increasing numbers has underscored the idea of rape as not only an instrument of power wielded against an enemy but one that sets comrade against comrade.

Yet not every commander in history has buried the subject. Among the many stories the historian Plutarch tells about Alexander the Great – king of Macedon, hegemon of Greece, pharaoh of Egypt and ultimately emperor of Persia -- there is one that concerns the Theban noblewoman Timoclaea, whom some Thracian soldiers robbed while their ringleader raped her. He then added insult to injury by asking if she had any hidden treasures, so she led him alone to a well in her garden and as he leaned over, pushed him in.

The other Thracians involved then led her in chains before Alexander, thinking she would be punished for the murder. Instead he freed her and her children.

Il Domenichino’s “Alexander and Timoclaea” (circa 1615), oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre.

Il Domenichino’s “Alexander and Timoclaea” (circa 1615), oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre.

Now granted, she was a woman of nobility in every sense of that word whose brother had once fought courageously against Alexander and his father, Philip, at the battle of Chaeronea, which had established Macedon’s authority over Greece.

But under Alexander’s leadership, any woman who was raped was given compensation and an apology from the king himself while the rapist-soldier suffered a horrifying death.

Now why should Alexander, no ancient Boy Scout, have such an aversion to rape, and pedophilia as well? Something of a mama’s boy, he always enjoyed close relationships with women. He was also a great admirer of the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great, famed for his chivalry.

Alexander, however, was also a pragmatic military leader – probably the best field commander in history – who understood how sex crimes tear the fabric of society, in his case, his superbly honed army.

He knew that you cannot defend what you cannot trust. That’s something our Joint Chiefs and Congress should mull as they consider this issue.