This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.
Traditional war practices, such as killing are not easily linked with sexual intimacies in war. The image of a soldier is that of a rough-ridding macho-man driven by the desire to kill characterised by bigotry. While this is somehow true, this is not the image presented in this text. The blog post is interested in an intimate and romantic soldier in the context of war in Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo war, fought between 1998 and 2002. The focus is on intervening forces, the Zimbabwean soldiers, whose stories of war were embedded with intimate sex with civilian Congolese women in war. This Democratic Republic of Congo war has been referred as the “Great War” in Africa and/or the “Africa World War” (Reyntjens, 1999; Rawlence, 2012). This is premised on the number of intervening countries and forces in the war: Rwanda and Uganda countries supporting the rebel forces fighting against the Democratic Republic of Congo government, supported by Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia. This was fought for five consecutive years, and millions of civilians lost their lives, including soldiers and rebels.
The burgeoning scholarship interest on war continues to present war as always a social, economic and a politically destructive experience. This is real. However, war has intimate moments. Thus, while the dominant discourse on and about war is that it is about killing and decimating the perceived enemies, sex in war makes our understanding of war and being in combat as a pleasurable experience. Thus what makes sex pleasurable is not just the act of doing sex in war, but how an exciting experience is made possible in the face of adversity and the certainty of death. Soldiers are not just instruments of killing, rather they do establish long term and intimate relationships with civilians in the context of war. The strong academic and policy position is that sex in war is rape, yet soldiers do establish sexual romantic relationship with civilian women in the context of war. The social processes involved in the context of war is quite similar in the context of peace. Such practices help us to understand that even though soldiers’ intention in war is to fight and kill, killing in war is inextricably linked with moments of intimate sex.
The idea here is not to refute the presence of rape in war by soldiers against civilians, and or civilian against civilians, but to have a discussion on a grey area about war, which even scholars skirt around, and the media included. The question on intimate sex in war, by soldiers, reveals to us issues about soldiering in its totality in the context of war. Oftentimes, soldiers, and men are presented as perpetrators of sexual violence, without an understanding that they are law abiding citizens even in spaces in which they can act otherwise. Infantry soldiers are often accompanied by the military police in war. The military police enforce discipline on soldiers fighting in the war. The military police do represent the arms of the state, which can arrest, detain, and ensures that the due process is followed in prosecution, even in war. Thus, apart from soldiers being moral agents, they abide by the laws which guide them in the context of war. It is not entirely true that soldiers are left rogue in war, instead, military commanders, and military police prepare ‘standing orders’, which guide and control soldiers to act within the specific confines of the law. Any soldier who goes against the ‘standing orders’, is heavily punished and corrected.
War is a window of opportunity for soldiers to meet and establish intimate relationships which sometimes goes beyond the context of war. Soldiers do understand and make a distinction between rape, other forms of sexual violence and intimate sex. The ability to make a distinction between rape and intimate sex, is drawn from them being humane. Thus, having guns and carrying them does not easily cause men to lose the morality of sexual relations. Soldiers in war do go out and beyond the trenches, dressed in civilian clothing, meet civilian women and date. In turn, soldiers bring-in civilian women in the trenches of war, as part of wartime companionship.
It is therefore important to understand that sex in war is a social practice in the context of war which is characterised by emotions of being humane. War does not completely eradicate the ways in which intimacies are understood both in theory and in practice.
Rawlence, B. (2012) Radio Congo: Signals of hope from Africa’s deadliest war, One World, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Reyntjens, F. (1999) Briefing: The second Congo war: More than a remake, African Affairs, 98, 391: 241-250