What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France by Mary Louise Roberts (University of Chicago Press, £21)
In September 1944, three months after the Allied invasion of Normandy, Life ran an otherwise unremarkable piece entitled “The Girl Partisan of Chartres.” It was a two-column vignette by Jack Belden, one of the most celebrated foreign correspondents of his day, on a “pretty 17-year-old” called Nicole who “killed a Boche” on the night of Bastille Day earlier that summer. As a news item, the story, in typical Life fashion, is light on the facts and heavy on the stereotype. But as a window into the contemporary American understanding of the Liberation—and of the French women to be liberated—it says everything.
In Belden’s eyes, the women are either the shamed femmes tondues immortalised in the iconic Robert Capa photograph that accompanies the article—“wretches dragged in by the crowd to have their heads shorn because they had consorted with the Germans”—or, like Nicole, a variation of the classic French temptress, complete with “full lips and a rather sultry expression” that sought American interest “patriotically.”
The GIs, in Life’s rendition, are pillars of heroism and decency, knights in shining armour whose mission in France was to rescue damsels in distress. In that sense, the famous Ralph Morse photograph of a soldier and a French woman kissing atop a jeep (as seen on the cover of the book) is the perfect complement to that narrative: the virile but gentle soldier is welcomed into the embrace of a paragon of French femininity and rewarded with a sexual favor, his just desert. Should that transaction raise any eyebrows, the photograph’s caption provides all the necessary reassurance: “US soldiers,” it concludes, “seldom have any more than a fleeting acquaintance with French girls. Reason: units move too fast or towns are declared off limits.”
By 1944, Life was one of the laboratories where American public opinion was sculpted, shaped and sold. And so it was from this and other reports that the myth of the noble and entirely innocent American liberation of France was created, a myth that has endured in most popular histories and representations of the period. Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day Museum in New Orleans is a monument to this interpretation, and Stephen Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan (1999) and the popular television series Band of Brothers (2001)—based on Ambrose’s book of the same title—are very much its film translations.
In her perceptive and thorough new book, What Soldiers Do, the historian Mary Louise Roberts of the University of Wisconsin has confronted that myth head-on, offering an alternate view of the Liberation as arresting as it is necessary. Far too often, accounts of this traumatic period in the recent French past focus on the abstractions of military strategy and its macrohistorical consequences; readers are trapped on the battlefield, locked in the mind of General Eisenhower or in the barracks of the men he commanded. Roberts’s book, however, demonstrates that “postwar transnational relations, far from being confined to diplomatic or political circles, were shaped at every level of society, and often emerged through specific cultures of gender and sexuality.”
Roberts is not the first historian to apply “the personal is political” to the sphere of American foreign policy. Academics such as Maria Höhn and Petra Goedde have written on the ways in which sexual relations between G.I.s and German women subordinated a defeated Germany to the United States; John Dower and Naoko Shibusawa (among many others) have done the same in the case of Japan. France, however, has never been explored on these grounds. What Soldiers Do is thus an long overdue account of what Roberts calls the “tsunami of male lust” that crashed on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944 and its role in fostering French subservience to American power, personally and politically.
The story Roberts tells is harrowing. The book begins with what she calls “gender damage,” the GIs’ attempt to humiliate French men already suffering from an impotent self-image after France fell quickly to the Germans in June 1940. “As a corollary to this failure,” she writes, “one that sprang from its shame, French men also feared they had lost sexual possession over their women.”
Alongside this was the problem of prostitution, a convenient omission from Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. By paying for sex, Roberts writes, “a GI was taught not only to use a French woman for his own ends, but also to exert control over French civilians in general… The shame of [a prostitute’s] commerce became the shame of the nation.”
If the US military was happy to turn a blind eye to such behaviour, the same could not be said for rape accusations against American GIs by French women, which did much to “undermine the myth of the American mission embodied in the manly GI.” These accusations, Roberts notes, were taken surprisingly seriously, as they “suggested what could be seen as the brutal reality of US dominance.”
However, the military’s response only exposed the brutal reality of American life. Among the most valuable statistics What Soldiers Do contains is that between 1944 and 1945, 29 public executions by hanging were performed as a result of rape convictions. Of those hanged, 25 were African-American soldiers. French women, Roberts insists, were just as culpable as the US military: scapegoating African-Americans was a means of ensuring that someone would be punished for their rapes, if not the exact culprit. “In this way,” she points out, “the French and the Americans became deadly allies in racism.”
The central thesis of this slim but significant account—that “women’s bodies became an important means by which Franco-American relations were reordered”—adds a welcome new perspective to the vast historiography of the period. At a time when the US military faces an internal sexual assault crisis, What Soldiers Do is also a reminder that it has long been too willing to ignore these institutional problems.