Near the back of one of my Navy cruise booksroughly analogous to a high school annualis a photograph of a girl no older than 15 years old. Index finger on lower lip, she's scantily clad and posing provocatively. She's a Thai prostitute. Her controller's identity is unknown, but her customers we can identify, at least on this occasion. They are American sailors assigned to the now-defunct U.S.S. Ranger.
According to an anti-pedophilia law passed more than 10 years ago, the bodies of kids like this were put off-limits to Americans, including military personnel. But the law was hardly enforceable; and, the occasional token arrest of pedophile sailors notwithstanding, everyone knew that the chances of getting caught, let alone busted, were almost zero. The very public photograph in my cruise book makes the point.
When Navy ships weren't anchored off the coast of Pattaya Beach, the girl's customers were Australian, Belgian, German, Canadian, Japanese, British, and American tourists. Whether she knew it or not, she was part of a global economy. And when American sailors handed money to her (or to her pimp or mamasan), they were casting a vote in favor of slavery. They were voting in favor of sex tourism, which has become Thailand's greatest source of external income. They were sending a message to pimps in the Philippines that they should disperse girls to the bars, clubs, and brothels near America's military bases on Okinawa, where Filipinas cannot speak the local languages and where they expect to get jobs as laundresses and factory workers. Instead, they will entertain America's young men.
When the Navy guys handed their money over, they were promoting a global catastrophe. It was therefore both saddening and funny to read the other day what the commander of 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea had to say. Gen. Leon LaPorte is concerned that soldiers visiting Asian prostitutes might "be construed as supporting human trafficking." The words are welcome, but they echo the language of denial that has been the norm in the military for decades.
Memo to General LaPorte: I went to South Korea with the U.S. Navy. All I heard about before arriving there was that it had great and inexpensive hookers, many of whom (I learned) were transported to Pusan from Seoul to accommodate an aircraft carrier's thousands. That's called trafficking. There's nothing to "construe."
Trafficking in humans is not new, though it is evil, and in a just world the leaders who have let it go on decade after decade would be put on trial. The drunken deeds of America's unwitting freckle-faces in the brothels of Bangkok are bad enough. The willful refusal among the powerful to acknowledge that each year American troops pump millions of dollars into Asia's vicious skin trade is criminal.
Readers might have noticed that anti-Americanism is on the rise. One of the causes of this in Asiain Thailand, the Philippines, Korea, and Okinawais that up to now the U.S. military has done almost nothing to prevent or slow the growth of an industry that treats poor Asian girls (and some boys) as expendable.
The gist of the September 22 Associated Press article that quotes Gen. LaPorte is that, soon, U.S. troops overseas may face punishment for visiting prostitutes. "[W]omen and girls are being forced into prostitution for a clientele consisting largely of military service members," U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R.N.J.) says. A law prohibiting military personnel overseas from visiting prostitutes is a good idea, though perhaps I may be forgiven for not expecting much. If nothing else, when a carrier group pulls into a port, some 6,000 sailors and Marines hit the beach. Melting into the labyrinths of Bangkok is easy, especially when it's in pimps' interests to help customers remain undetected.
For the law to be effective, a fundamental shift in the moral culture of the Navy would be necessary. That may be possible, though the long-standing eye-winks of high-ranking officers, the open encouragement of senior enlisted men, and the silence of chaplains have over the years created a sense that, by right, young men in uniform from Nebraska, Maine, and California should have easy access to the bodies of girls and young women from Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines.
Somewhere I have a file of notes I have received from editors at conservative political magazines, from military officers, and from spokesmen at family values organizations. The notes make for depressing reading and usually revolve around a few themes: American troops did not invent prostitution and this kind of thing exists elsewhere in the world. Boys will be boys. Six months at sea is a long time. Japanese men are worse. Criticizing the military is un-American. We don't really care.
So radical feminists (who do care about the prostitutes) and abortion advocates (who know that children fathered by GIs and born to bar girls are likely to face grueling discrimination) seize the vacant high ground. This, along with the general silence of influential people who purport to care about families and the nation's moral fiber, makes it all the easier for the mainstream to ignore or to minimize the experiences of the bar and brothel girls. And the medics still pass out condoms while the generals and admirals speak in euphemisms.
But many people in Asia, who would like America's Christians to have a little decency, are perplexed by talk about the U.S. as a "city on a hill." In Iraq we promote democracy. In ports-of-call on the way home from Iraq we toss our coins into a system that locks girls in the clutches of pimps in Pattaya Beach, Bangkok and Phuket. Anti-American feeling grows in Korea and Japan, meanwhile, and we wonder why.
America has high principles and ideals. Inevitably, its pursuit of these ideals is imperfect. But some errors are more obvious than others.
I hope it bothers you that for the past several decades American servicemen in East Asia have horrendously exploited powerless women and girls with the consent of their superiors.
Preston Jones, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1986 to 1990, teaches at John Brown University.
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An article Jones earlier wrote on the history of the U.S. military's involvement with the East Asian sex trade is available on at the John Brown website.
He has also written on the subject for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Jones is on the advisory committee for ECPAT-USA, an organization devoted to fighting childhood prostitution.
He is also a contributing editor for Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture, for which he has written many articles.