Review of Mary Louise Roberts, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (University of Chicago Press, 2013), xii + 351 pgs., hardcover.
Another D-Day (June 6) celebration on has come and gone. It has been ten years since I posted this on the LRC blog:
According to an article about Antony Beevor’s new book, D-Day, 20,000 French civilians were killed within three months of the D-Day landing. Some villages in Normandy only recently began having D-Day celebrations. What? How ungrateful these people were for the “hundreds of tons of bombs destroying entire cities and wiping out families.” Or perhaps it was because of the “theft and looting of Normandy households and farmsteads by liberating soldiers” that “began on June 6 and never stopped during the entire summer.” Or perhaps it was the “3,500 rapes by American servicemen in France between June 1944 and the end of the war.”
I recently came across another book on D-Day that greatly expands upon this last point.
I have been putting off for some time now a review of Mary Louise Roberts’ important book What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (hereafter What Soldiers Do). I don’t normally review books that are over a year or two old but I must make an exception in the case of this book. And since we have just been bombarded with propaganda about how great American soldiers were who liberated France from the Nazis on D-Day, it is now or never if I am ever going to get this book reviewed.
What Soldiers Do proves and documents, without doubt or gainsaying, whether the author intended it or not, that U.S. soldiers in World War II were the greatest generation of whoremongers in the history of the American military.
Mary Louise Roberts is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. She is also the author of D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944 (University of Chicago Press, 2014), and at least two other books that I am aware of.
What Soldiers Do begins with an introduction and ends with a conclusion. In each case, the port city of Le Havre in Normandy is mentioned. In the introduction we read that in 1945, a year after D-Day, thousands of American GIs in Le Havre were waiting for a boat home. The mayor of the city penned a letter to the American regional commander complaining that “the good citizens of his city were unable to take a walk in the park or visit the grave of a loved one without coming across a GI engaged in sex with a prostitute.” At night, “drunken soldiers roamed the street looking for sex, and as a result ‘respectable’ women could not walk alone.” “Scenes contrary to decency” were taking place “day and night.” In the conclusion we read that “GIs were emboldened to believe the nation was theirs for the taking.” In garrison towns like Le Havre, the GI’s “disregard for French social norms meant they had public sex with prostitutes and assaulted women on the streets.”
According to the author, What Soldiers Do “explores how sex was used to negotiate authority” between the United States and France. It focuses on the “three kinds of sex between GIs and French women during the US military presence: romance, prostitution, and rape.” These subjects make up the three sections of the book. The book concludes with almost 80 pages of notes, including many French sources, followed by a very detailed index.
Roberts explains that “with very few exceptions the GIs had no emotional attachment to the French people or the cause of their freedom.” The Normandy campaign was billed as “an erotic adventure.” Sexual fantasies about France motivated “the GI to get off the boat and fight.” However, “such fantasies also unleashed a veritable tsunami of male lust.” Once aroused, “the GI libido proved difficult to contain.” Roberts maintains that “sex was fundamental to how the US military framed, fought, and won the war in Europe.” She contends that “this book presents GI sexual conduct as neither innocent of power nor unimportant in effect.” Military historians, including Stephen Ambrose, “have largely ignored the sexual habits of American soldiers.”
And what were these sexual habits?
- The GIs propositioned women right in front of their husbands or boyfriends.
- Women could not walk the streets alone; sexual relations occurred in broad daylight under the eyes of children.
- The local girls flocked to the large camps north of town, where the American soldier was “jumping on, even raping, anything which fell under his dick.”
- During their time in France, the GIs bought an extraordinary amount of sex.
- The GIs bartered for sex no differently than they did alcohol and cigarettes.
- Trading Army products for sex was common GI practice throughout Europe.
- One thousand to fifteen hundred men could pass through [a brothel] in a day, forcing a woman to take on fifty to sixty customers.
- Sometimes a prostitute would fulfill her duties in an alleyway, blacked-out doorway, or under a bridge. These encounters the GIs called “knee-tremblers.”
- Sex was most often had for GI products such as soap, cigarettes, chocolate, and K rations.
- Cooperation between GIs and prostitutes ensured a steady supply of sex.
- An estimated dozen divisions started their own brothels.
- Soon after D-day, military officers realized that they could not control GI sexual activity in France.
- GI promiscuity took place in parks, cemeteries, streets, and abandoned buildings in cities.
- Sexual relations because unrestricted and public; sexual intercourse was performed in broad daylight before the eyes of civilians, including children.
- Once in France, GIs received condoms along with their food rations.
- The soaring rate of infection signaled the army’s incapacity at every level to regulate sexual relations between GIs and French women.
- One military study found that 50 percent of married soldiers and 80 percent of unmarried soldiers had intercourse at some point during the war.
- Some of these MPs because full-time pimps, allowing the prostitutes to enter in exchange for a share of their earnings.
- If the GIs did not find women to satisfy their desires, they would rape “honest” women.
- The warm weather facilitated outdoor sex.
- An unwanted, homeless population of diseased women being shuttled from town to town—these prostitutes compromise the legacy of the American occupation in Normandy.
- The US military was struggling mightily with the problems of GI promiscuity. As we have seen, clandestine prostitution was rampant; venereal disease rates were escalating, and accusations of rape were legion.
- The sexual exploitation of French women allowed the US military to test out the new gears of its global authority.
- US officers tried to contain the damage to their reputation by scapegoating black GIs and proclaiming rape to be a “black” crime.
- Prostitutes were considered the French commodity par excellence. In the mind of a GI, a prostitute differed little from a cigarette, save in the price on the black market.
U.S. soldiers in World War II were heroic, they were brave, they were altruistic, but they were also the greatest generation of whoremongers.