What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France by Mary Louise Roberts

Fiona Reid on the military life’s inherent brutality

May 23, 2013

What do soldiers do? This is a question that has been asked frequently in the past decade as British and American troops have been engaged in extensive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers are often presented as unproblematic heroes and emblematic of a nation’s masculinity, which is why it is so troubling when they behave in a degraded or brutal fashion. What did soldiers do in Abu Ghraib prison, and why? Recent UK research indicates that ex-soldiers are far more likely than the general population to commit violent crime. Can we attribute this to post-traumatic stress disorder or is it at the root of what “soldiers do”?

Mary Louise Roberts’ book is all the more pertinent because it asks this question of the group of soldiers most likely to be idealised and least likely to be criticised: the American GIs who helped to liberate France from Nazi occupation in 1944-45. In popular mythology, the GIs who landed in Normandy in June 1944 were large, well-dressed, well-fed and handsome. Unlike Italy and Germany, France was liberated rather than conquered, and so the troops’ arrival was greeted with unalloyed joy; unlike the Soviet forces who liberated Eastern Europe, the Americans were not the foot soldiers of a dominating political power. The US was a “vibrant democracy” and its troops brought not only political freedom but also pockets bulging with cigarettes, chewing gum and candy. Certainly many young French women were initially captivated by these soldiers laden with unheard-of luxuries, and after years of dire shortages, all civilians marvelled at peanut butter, instant coffee, margarine and Coca-Cola. For good reason, the GIs were known as “Amerilots”: they had lots of everything and they signified abundance.

Sex may have been given freely in the initial heady days of liberation, but it quickly became a commodity

Yet relations between a foreign army and a civilian population are rarely straightforward. GIs arrived on French soil with preconceived sexual fantasies and an ingrained belief in the decadence of French women. This prejudice was reinforced in the early days of liberation as women suspected of sexual liaisons with Nazi soldiers were paraded, shaven- headed, through the streets while other (equally available) young French women eagerly greeted their American liberators with public kisses. Clearly there was romance but there was also abuse. Sex may have been given freely in the initial heady days of liberation, but it quickly became a commodity and US soldiers were soon associated with prostitution and soaring rates of sexually transmitted disease. Those who argue that prostitution does not necessarily degrade should pay close attention to the language of Panther Tracks, a GI newspaper, on this topic: “An especially vivacious and well-rounded harlot might demand a price of 600 francs. However the price scales downwards for fair merchandise and mediocre stock. Some fairly delicious cold cuts can be had for 150 and 200 francs.” By conceptualising French women as “cold cuts”, GIs grew used to accepting subservience from all women and from the entire highly “feminised” French nation.

Some troops had particular preconceptions about France. For the black GI - known as “GI Jody” - the country was a safe haven far from the deeply racist US. Yet black GIs underestimated the French army’s colonial history of racial oppression and the tendency of French civilians, especially in rural areas, to project their fears on to black soldiers. Black GIs tended to blame “white Americans” and their “Jim Crow ways” for French racial attitudes, but the French and US authorities shared deep prejudices about the “over-sexualised black man” and black sexual aggression. “White soldiers could rape a French white woman with impunity if an African American was in the vicinity and could be plausibly blamed,” Roberts observes, hence the disproportionate number of black soldiers convicted of sexual assault. By categorising rape as a “negro crime”, American military authorities were able to isolate and marginalise it. Black soldiers became the scapegoats: while GI Joe was an “exuberant boy” guilty of no more than high jinks and sexual adventures, GI Jody was a rapist.

What is of greatest interest in this book is the way that sex is posited as central to the story of American power in Europe after the Second World War. The invasion of Normandy was portrayed as “an erotic adventure” and the soldiers who survived the landings wanted the spoils of war in the form of women’s bodies - this much one could assume - yet these sexual relations were central to the new power relations of the post-war order. Prior to the war there was a high level of French anxiety about “la France ridée”, an old, wrinkled, demographically depleted nation afraid of losing her place in the world. In stark contrast, US servicemen saw a submissive, highly sexualised France, and one that was theirs for the taking. Moreover, that French women could be so easily seduced indicated that French men (who had collapsed militarily in 1940) were effete and ineffective. The French Resistance was famously “undisciplined” and French men often presented as oversexualised, highly excitable and physically small. French déportés and prisoners of war were widely disparaged by US forces: while it was gallant to liberate women, the liberation of men was a different matter. Too often in the years 1944-45, the US authorities reminded the French that they were “masters in their own house”, yet if you need to be told, you are clearly no master.

While US troops entered France as part of a liberating force, ordinary French men and women would experience the GIs as yet another occupation force. US military power was capricious; its military justice was often rushed and sometimes arbitrary. Although many Franco-American conflicts can be attributed to the sheer chaos of war, there are clear indications of American unwillingness to control GI sexuality - or at least white GI sexuality. French complaints about sexual activity in public places were legion, but US military authorities responded to these complaints only to ensure that the public back home knew nothing of them. While it was undesirable to have US wives and girlfriends fret about the behaviour of their men, French anxieties could be largely ignored. The colonial attitude is plain here: as a subject people, French civilians were rendered invisible and discounted.

Throughout this book the links between sex, the body, national and transnational politics are made plain. While some readers may query the argument that the behaviour of GIs can be conceptualised as the “growing pains” of a nation moving into world leadership, many will appreciate this nuanced history of sex, war and power. The sexual behaviour of an army, and the sexual abuse it propagates, are to do with more than the personal choices of select individuals. Looking beyond “a few bad hats”, as British Army officers are wont to say of abusers, is instructive, not just for a deeper understanding of the complex liberation of France but also of the broader links between military power, sexual dominance and gender relations.

The author

Mary Louise Roberts, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, lives in Madison with her partner Susan Zaeske, the university’s associate dean for advancements, arts and humanities, and “a golden doodle named Fenway (after Fenway Park in Boston)”. Madison, she enthuses, “is a city of trees. It is a lovely place for walking every day of the year. It is also a city of lakes; in the summer, there is canoeing, swimming and kayaking.”

Were Roberts to live elsewhere she would choose “Paris, of course - do I need to explain why?”

“I was born in New York and raised in a small town in Massachusetts. I grew up in a colonial-style house built in 1793 that was part of the ‘underground railway’ to help slaves escape to Canada. Growing up there kindled my interest in history.”

“I was always a reader. In high school, I passed up a class trip to Spain in order to write a 70-page research paper on Elizabethan England. When I presented it to my teacher, she almost fainted. My older sister Beth, who is also an academic, always supervised my reading. In addition, she took me to art films, like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. I had no idea what they were about, but I sensed how exciting it would be to know!”

Roberts studied at Wesleyan University in Connecticut for her undergraduate degree and Sarah Lawrence College for her master’s, and went on to take her doctorate at Brown University. Wesleyan, she says, “was an amazing place. In my senior year, I did a directed reading with a religious studies scholar whose specialty was St Augustine. He enthusiastically agreed to my chosen topic: a comparative study of Friedrich Nietzsche and the radical lesbian feminist Mary Daly. Where else would I have been able to do something like that? At Wesleyan I was able to nurture my ideal of scholarship as a deeply creative process.”

She confesses: “I wanted to become an academic long before I let myself do it. The job market for academics was very discouraging in the 1980s, so I taught high school for four years. I loved it, but I wanted to write books. Finally at 29, I just decided to do what I wanted to do and ignore all the bad prognostics. Much to my surprise it all worked out.”

Discussing the genesis of this book, Roberts says: “The US military trench journal Stars and Stripes first sparked my interest in this subject. I ordered it up because I was interested in GIs’ perception of the French people. Wow. I couldn’t believe what I found. Sex, sex, sex!!! I realized how much the military was ‘selling’ the campaign as an opportunity for guys to have sex with French women. How fascinating was that? My next big ‘aha’ moment came when I started combing through local archives in Normandy, in particular the municipal archive in Le Havre. I was the first American to look at these documents, as they did not open to the public until January 2005. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The GIs were assaulting and raping the local population on a daily basis, and the US military really didn’t seem to care. I began to realise I was sitting on a bombshell.”

“I dedicated What Soldiers Do to my parents. My father was a veteran of the war; he served in the Navy. Before he died in 2007, he referred to What Soldiers Do as my book about ‘what went wrong in Normandy’. He wasn’t thrilled about the project, mostly because he felt I would never (as usual) make any money by writing it! But he knew me well enough not to question my patriotism. Since he taught me to value the truth above all else, he understood what I was up to. I don’t expect everyone to be so tolerant. Many people are invested in the Second World War as the moment of supreme ‘goodness’ for the US. There’s really nothing in my book that contradicts that belief. I also consider it a truly great moment for our nation, but a flawed one as well - a very human moment of glory. My goal was not to judge but to offer a richer, more truthful vision of what we accomplished in Europe.”

While many believe that the majority of Second World War history buffs are men, Roberts says she finds the assertion “Quite wrong! About six years ago, I began to run a contest for students in my modern European survey when we were doing the Second World War. I give them a document I found at the National Archives in Washington. They have to identify the sender (Winston Churchill), the date, and explain the topic (D-Day, described as “the big balloon” in the message). The prize is a medium-sized pizza. What follows is a flurry of guesses, then one person nailing each and every aspect of the document. The winner has yet to be a man…”

Of her hobbies, Roberts says, “I am passionately interested in the fibre arts - knitting and sewing. I’ve done both for many years, so I’m fairly good at designing and making my clothes. I love knitting sweaters, scarves and hats for people I love, so they stay warm in the winter. I have a compelling need to always be making something. A sweater is done so much faster than a book!”

Karen Shook

What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France

By Mary Louise Roberts
University of Chicago Press, 368pp, £21.00
ISBN 9780226923093 and 23123 (e-book)
Published 6 June 2013

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