How a battle for freedom was sold as an erotic adventure
What Soldiers Do. Sex and the American GI in WWII France Mary Louise Roberts University of Chicago Press £19.50
It's surprising that Professor Mary Louise Roberts' book, What Soldiers Do didn't cause more of a stir. There have been good international reviews, but her astonishing reconfiguring of the record of what Americans call 'the good war', its soldiers 'the greatest generation' is so divergent from the homespun yarns beloved of American movies and popular fiction, it truly is an eye-opener.
The liberation of France, Roberts says, was sold to US soldiers not so much as a battle for freedom but more an erotic adventure among oversexed Frenchwomen; or, as Life magazine put it, France is 'a tremendous brothel inhabited by 40 million hedonists'. Panther Tracks, the military mag of the time, brutally advised: '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'.
This was, of course, a disastrous colouration from the French point of view. A 'sexing up' that stirred up a 'tsunami of male lust' in the GIs, resulting in wholesale sexual misconduct, including rape, public sex with prostitutes and soaring STD rates. The much photographed kisses between GI's and pretty French girls, degenerated into something much uglier.
The author is no outsider. Professor of History at the University of Madison, Wisconsin, her credentials include a Dad who served in the American military in World War II. She was not out to besmirch 'our boys', but, the first American made privy to a dusty archive in Le Havre, she was so astounded at the thousands of civilian complaints of sexual misconduct, she 'just had to keep digging'.
'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'.
Propaganda was coupled with a military policy of denial, though, if things did get too out of hand a Black GI was nabbed, court martialled and hanged. (A 'policy' eagerly supported by both sides).
'White soldiers could rape a French white woman with impunity if an African American was in the vicinity and could be plausibly blamed'. Out of 29 public hangings 25 were black GIs.
Extraordinarily, it wasn't until RJ Lilly's Taken by Force was published in 2003, showing 14,000 women were raped in Europe by American GIs during the war that some of this information finally came out. What Soldiers Do takes the story further. As Roberts drily states, 'Women's bodies became an important means by which Franco-American relations were recorded'.
As ever, rape was a weapon of war, of humiliation. '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'.
Just one word of disagreement with Roberts on her conclusion: that American behavior in France can be somewhat excused as the 'growing pains', of a nation on its way to becoming a super power. I'm sure she doesn't mean that makes the rape of 14,000 women okay. And I sincerely hope she doesn't mean that America being a super power is A Good Thing.
Not everyone in the world would agree with that one. But she lifted the lid on the cocktail of lies, propaganda, denial, sexism and racism that fuelled much of the Normandy 'liberation'. The 'good war' that wasn't so good at all.