An American soldier’s sexual assault of a 14-year-old Okinawan girl has caused a diplomatic crisis that could result in Japan’s refusal to increase its participation in the Iraq war, creating a rare situation indeed: an instance in which rape matters to the U.S. military.

President Bush apologized. Condi Rice even told Japanese leaders that the United States would “try” to prevent such incidents from happening again. My opinion: “Try” is already an admission of helplessness.

The military has no idea what to do with its rape problem because it’s part of the core contradiction out of which today’s military tradition has grown. Military rape, and the denial and/or blame-the-victim vehemence with which it is generally greeted, exposes, perhaps like nothing else, the lunacy of so much of our foreign policy, which is built on assumptions of that tradition that have long been abandoned in most other spheres of life, beginning with the need for a dehumanized, soulless “other” who is the “enemy.”

Turns out the dehumanization process is not easily controlled, especially when it is well-armed and stoked with testosterone. This is the flip side of glory; and there is a growing global awareness that the way nation states conduct their business, and press their “interests” in the moral vacuum that separates one from another, must be reconsidered and humanized all the way, you might say, back to Rome (about whom it was said, “They create a wasteland and call it peace”).

Doing so may well be humanity’s most crucial task, and evidence that military rape — against the enemy, against neutral civilians, against itself — is a stealth horror far more pervasive than official sources willingly admit, or popular culture sees fit to acknowledge, demonstrates with particular poignancy the cost of avoiding it.

Consider that a third — a third! — of female veterans report being raped by their own comrades-in-arms and as many as 90 percent say they were sexually harassed by men with whom they served, according to journalism professor Helen Benedict, writing this week in the New York Times. And consider that the situation is almost never taken seriously within the chain of command until — unless — outrage from the civilian sector demands a response.

Isn’t it time to ask what’s going on here? A good part of the explanation seems obvious to me: In military tradition, so rooted in the barbaric past, rape isn’t a crime (at most, it’s a property crime, against the father or husband of the victim). Outrage about rape flows from a far more contemporary awareness than military tradition trusts or even acknowledges. To deal with military rape systemically — and given the scope of its occurrence, only systemic change will do any good — would require an overhaul of values far more extensive than any general could begin to take on. So instead, the problem, in one way or another, is commanded to go away.

The rape of the Okinawan girl last February, as discussed recently in an article for Truthout by Ann Wright, a retired colonel with the U.S. Army Reserves, is part of a long history of the rape of local women around U.S. military bases. That the Bush administration was pushing Japan to get involved in its Iraq fiasco by providing more refueling ships and logistics aircraft when the rape occurred has made it a cause celebre rather than just one more forgotten piece of collateral damage, Wright says. The United States is even, officially, “concerned for the well-being of the young girl and her family,” Rice stated at a news conference.

Compare this to the treatment Jamie Leigh Jones, a 23-year-old Texas woman who was working for the military contractor KBR (then a subsidiary of Halliburton) in Iraq in 2005, received when she told her employer she had been gang-raped by fellow workers:

“After she reported the alleged assault, she said she was confined to a shipping container and told that if she left Iraq to seek medical attention she would not have a job on her return,” according to a recent article in The Times, U.K., which reported that Jones had won the right to take her case to trial, rather than have to settle it in private arbitration, as per the fine print of her KBR contract.

To avoid further punishment, military rape victims usually just suffer in silence. “As women return for repeat tours, usually redeploying with their same units, many must go back to war with the same man (or men) who abused them. This leaves these women as threatened by their own comrades as by the war itself,” Benedict writes.

And even when the military prosecutes a rape, “The system of military justice is not encumbered by concerns about conflict of interest or abuse of power,” retired Army officer Barbara Bachmeier wrote recently in the Anchorage Daily News. “Most alarming, questioning during a military trial permits the use of long-outdated sexist and stereotypical attitudes.”

A militarized world requires enemies; and the enemy the tradition of militarism fears most is enlightenment.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.