Thursday, June 13, 2013
What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France by Mary Louise Roberts
Unfortunately, it appears that many who read the title assume that some type of diatribe awaits them within the pages of this text. The truth, however, is that this is an academic attempt to do a few things at once. First, the author capitalizes on the popularity of the Second World War and the 'greatest generation'. Secondly, using the Second World War and the American liberation of France as a tool, she utilizes her knowledge base (gender, women, bodies, etc.) to present the liberation in an original way and showcase how the US military and French civilian population interacted through intimate, and at times violent, sexual encounters. Roberts is hardly accusing the American GI of doing anything that other armies or previous and future generations are not guilty of. On the contrary, she's pointing out that the military as an institution is one that has skeletons in its closet, something one can hardly deny.
Rape and sex in general have always been a part of warfare, be it women camp followers who joined armies on campaigns and provided companionship to soldiers, or female victims of victorious forces when cities and lands were sacked/pillaged. Aside from pointing out the obvious, that prostitution was a booming industry and rape was a common enough phenomenon, Roberts utilizes US and French attitudes, ideas, and relations to describe the situation both sides found themselves in during 1944 and 1945. While the French were happy to be liberated from the Germans, they somehow forgot all that comes with an occupying power, which the US and the British were, though not in the traditional sense. Unfortunately for the French, millions of armed Americans (among others) on their soil did not only come with altruistic intentions in mind. The French expected a liberating power that would make life easier, perhaps help them reclaim their previous geopolitical position, and liberate them from the Germans. What they were presented with was an armed force eager to finish the war but with an insatiable appetite for sex.
Those making high-level decisions had no real issues with prostitution as long as it was kept quiet. The problem was quietly attempting to control something that they were loudly disavowing proved impossible. Prostitution, something that could be regulated and made (relatively) safe, was uncontrollable thanks to both soldiers and prostitutes (one wanted sex, the other a way to make money and receive food/protection). The biggest issue for US forces became venereal disease, something the US Army could hardly allow on a large scale. Rape, however, was an issue both the US and French wanted to address and suppress yet in the process allowed preconceived racial notions to guide their reasoning behind why rapes occurred in the first place. African American troops were consistently singled out, both when a rape had actually occurred and even when false accusations were made, and both French and US representatives allowed their racist agendas to dictate the guilt of many innocent African American GIs. For those interested in understanding the liberation of France through an academic study that highlights how both the French and Americans handled the issue of sex during 1944 and 1945, this is definitely a monograph to look into.