by Katie Zavadski
In What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France, Mary Louise Roberts recounts the unsavory activities of the good boys of the Greatest Generation. Jennifer Schuessler reviews the book (NYT):
The book cites military propaganda and press accounts depicting France as “a tremendous brothel inhabited by 40 million hedonists,” as Life magazine put it. (Sample sentences from a French phrase guide in the newspaper Stars and Stripes: “You are very pretty” and “Are your parents at home?”)
On the ground, however, the grateful kisses captured by photojournalists gave way to something less picturesque. In the National Archives in College Park, Md., Ms. Roberts found evidence — including one blurry, curling snapshot — supporting long-circulating colorful anecdotes about the Blue and Gray Corral, a brothel set up near the village of St. Renan in September 1944 by Maj. Gen. Charles H. Gerhardt, commander of the infantry division that landed at Omaha Beach, partly to counter a wave of rape accusations against G.I.’s. (It was shut down after a mere five hours.)
In France, Ms. Roberts also found a desperate letter from the mayor of Le Havre in August 1945 urging American commanders to set up brothels outside the city, to halt the “scenes contrary to decency” that overran the streets, day and night. They refused, partly, Ms. Roberts argues, out of concern that condoning prostitution would look bad to “American mothers and sweethearts,” as one soldier put it. Keeping G.I. sex hidden from the home front, she writes, ensured that it would be on full public view in France: a “two-sided attitude,” she said, that is reflected in the current military sexual abuse crisis.
Fiona Reid also reviews the book:
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.
In a review last month, Robert Zaretsky considered the racial implications:
A veritable army of infected women, overwhelming France’s shattered medical facilities, was one tragic legacy of this cultural collision. An even more tragic and disturbing legacy, though, was that of rape by American soldiers. The crime was almost always, due to the institutionalized racism of the American Army and racial prejudices of French civilians, associated with blacks: of the 152 soldiers tried for rape in France, 139 were black. Segregated and relegated to service duties like food and laundry services, black soldiers had more contact with French civilians. This presence of black soldiers in the rear lines fused with racial stereotypes, widespread among both Americans and French, that blacks were “hypersexualized.” When one adds stark linguistic and cultural divides to these stereotypes, as well as the traumatic experience of war and liberation, blacks were frequently accused of crimes they never committed.
Inevitably, a segregated army that numbered thousands of officers from the American South rarely questioned these accusations. Roberts’s meticulous review of the rape trials reveals a fatal pattern of racial prejudice with accusers and the military courts. Along with chocolate and cigarettes, Jim Crow turned out to be another welcome American import.
David Ellwood finds parts lacking:
It is a devastating tale, written with rare fluency and style and meant to pull down for ever the sacred images of the ‘good war’ and America’s armies as being full of unsullied heroes, risking their lives to bring liberation, relief, hope and democracy. Unfortunately it also presents a blinkered view, restricted in effect to what happened in two regions in northern France in parts of 1944 and 1945. … Depravity was not the whole story. In most places Americans were also seen as carriers of a model of modernity. The medium of their technology alone carried a message: the soft power of hard metal.
It is David Reynolds who explained best just why the GI’s behaved so often in their uncontrolled way, a question Roberts never gets to the root of, even as she insists that the US army was unique in its attitudes to sex. Freedom to spend, eat, drink, smoke and to buy women anywhere, anytime was not the casual thoughtlessness of a power new to total war. Instead it was the key technique chosen by the general staff and Congress to hold together armed forces which were not fighting to defend home and hearth; a huge, raw mass of young individuals in uniform from a land with scarce military traditions and a strong commitment to citizen democracy. The American under arms was an extraordinarily privileged being compared to those all around wherever he (or she) went to war. Probably it is still so, but over time the Pentagon has found other ways to motivate its personnel beyond the promise of unlimited money, food and sex. The unhappy Normans (and plenty of others) paid the price for the start of this learning process.