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…