This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the conflict:
Conflicts in Vietnam began as early as in 1887, with the French colonizing the region and renaming it French Indochina (Vietnam War Timeline, 2013; Vietnam War, 2009). During World War II, armed forces from Japan invaded Vietnam, resulting in trained communist agent and ally of the Soviet Uninon, Ho Chi Minh, creating the Indochinese Communist Party and subsequently the Viet Minh organization, to liberate Vietnam from Japan and French rule. As a result of their defeat in the Second World War, Japan withdrew its troops. However, the French continued to try to seize administrational rule of the territory. In 1954, the French lost the battle to the Viet Minh, leading to the geographical division of the area into North Vietnam, governed by Ho Chi Minh and South Vietnam, controlled by the French emporer Bao Dai (Vietnam War Timeline, 2013; Vietnam War, 2009).
At the same time, the Cold War between the United States of America and the Soviet Union unfolded (Vietnam War Timeline, 2013; Vietnam War, 2009). During this time, the Soviet Union turned to Eastern nations, and the US introduced the Truman Doctrine, a strategy initiated to inhibit the spread of communistic principles across nations (Cold War, 2021). China and the Soviets supported North Vietnam’s efforts to spread communism through military and economic supply. The US, afraid that the transition of a single South Asian country into a communist nation would lead to a pattern of such conversions from neighbouring states, established military troops in support of South Vietnam’s cause. This led to a full blown war between North and South Vietnam (Vietnam War Timeline, 2013; Vietnam War, 2009).
Prevalence of Sexual Violence
Sexual abuse perpetrated by American soldiers during the war was a common, almost everyday affair. While most instances of rape and sexual violence in the Vietnam war by all actors targeting Vietnamese civilians have not been documented, the trend is slowly changing (Weaver, 2006). Crowded zones with more civilian groups reported more instances of rape and sexual violence. Common forms of violence against women during the war included rape (especially gang rape), assaults, kidnapping, mutilations, and murders. Regrettably, minimal numbers were convicted for these crimes and only a few survivors testified later (Anderson, 2020).
Formal reports were especially rare because most victims were executed afterwards, and several others were unlikely to report such incidents to the American military (Brownmiller, 1975). In February 1971, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War hosted the Winter Soldier Investigation, in which 109 Vietnam veterans gave testimony about the atrocities they had witnessed overseas, of which 14 spoke explicitly about rape, and many reported witnessing or participating in several instances of assault against Vietnamese women (Anderson, 2020; Brownmiller, 1975).
Anderson (2020) also explains: “Existing statistics are conflicting, but American military records show that rape was a facet of the war, albeit vastly underreported. US Army court martial statistics show that from January 1965 to January 1973, 38 servicemen were tried for rape and 24 were convicted. Five men were tried for rape and assault as a combined charge and only three were convicted. Eight were tried for assault and attempt to commit rape and four were convicted. For the Marine Corps, only 13 marines were convicted of rape between 1970 and 1973. In the Navy, only two. These records seem to conflict with other characterizations by veterans and observers who say that rape was common in their experience. Underreporting rape was common on the part of both Vietnamese women and servicemen, but these records still show that sexual violence was a part of the war.”
Strategic use of sexual violence
Sexual violence was used as a fear tactic to obtain information on the enemy. It was used to instill fear among Vietnamese women who played significant roles in the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. It was also used to warn opposing forces by humiliating women for their political standpoints. The absence of reporting and redress mechanisms paved the way for a culture of impunity, as members of the armed forces were aware that their acts would not be reported to their seniors (Zipfel, 2013). It was used to terrorize, intimidate, and target women. There were also several instances of opportunistic sexual violence.
Anderson, E. (2020, May 13). An everyday affair: Violence against women during the Vietnam war [Plan II honours program, The University of Texas at Austin].https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/84235/andersonelizabeth_Thesis_AnEverdayAffair_2020%20%281%29.pdf?sequence=2
Brownmiller, Susan. (1975). Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Fawcett Books, 1975).
Cold War. (2021, August 04).In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_War
History. (2009, October 29). Vietnam war. https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-history
History. (2017, September 13). Vietnam war timeline. https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-timeline
Weaver, M.G. (2006). Ideaologies of forgetting: American erasure of women’s sexual trauma in the Vietnam war [Doctor of Philosophy, Rice University].https://scholarship.rice.edu/bitstream/handle/1911/20667/3256763.PDF?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Zipfel, G. (2013). “Let us have a little fun”: The relationship between gender, violence, and sexuality in armed conflict situations. RCCS Annual Review, 5. Retrieved from https://journals.openedition.org/rccsar/469