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Sex and the American GI in World War II

What Soldiers Do
Sex and the American GI in World War II France
Mary Louise Roberts
University of Chicago Press   368pp   £21

This fascinating book tells a lurid, in many ways atrocious story with verve and lucidity. Using the Pentagon’s own archives, as well as a wide selection of local ones, Roberts paints a fresco of sexual voraciousness in GI uniform, ravaging – often literally – a mass of bewildered and uprooted women across post D-Day Normandy. Prostitution was epidemic, as were the consequent diseases, and all was condoned, even consciously organised by high command, with only one rule: don’t let the folks back home know. 

French authorities of all kinds protested with all of the few resources they possessed, but cynicism triumphed. Stereotypes of France and its women as decadent, meretricious, immoral, grasping – all held sway. Graphic details and memories of the consequences fill the pages. This is war desterilised. The final section leaves a particularly intense impression, as it deals with the appalling treatment handed out to black soldiers in general, and those convicted of rape specifically, by a deeply racist army. They got the dirty jobs, the endless humiliations, and the great majority of capital punishments for sexual violence. 

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. Without a serious effort of comparison with what happened in other parts of Europe, let alone Asia, what we get here is a cameo. The clash of civilisations that took place in Naples alone generated some of the greatest literature of the Second World War, as well as films, memoirs, diaries, journalism and, of course, official records from all sides. Every local encounter was different. There were thousands of GI brides in Europe – even in the Italy that the US despised more than any other nation. In Britain alone 35,000 marriages took place but, it seems from this book, not one in France? The British experience, brilliantly recounted by Juliet Gardiner and David Reynolds, as well as in a score of films and novels, has much to say about sex and the American GI. 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. 

David Ellwood is the author of The Shock of America: Europe and the Challenge of the Century (Oxford University Press, 2012).

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