The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace by Susan L. Carruthers (review)
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The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace. By Susan L. Carruthers (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2016) 386pp. $29.95

Carruthers acknowledges that her impressive, data-driven new book about the experience of American soldiers during occupation after World War II [End Page 283] testifies to a renewed interest in the subject. The demarcation between war and peace is rarely clear. All wars have far-reaching societal consequences, affecting the psychologies of both the defeated and, as we learn from Carruthers, the victorious. This point is no more evident today than in Iraq, which she uses as a foil for discussing “successful” military occupations (10). Success, she points out, is not easily measured. This book therefore aims to show how the morally ambiguous behavior of American soldiers during occupation transformed into the “good occupation” of national legend (10).

Despite her overarching focus on the construction of the myth surrounding American occupation, Carruther’s exposé of the soldiers’ psychological repercussions may well be the book’s most important contribution. She explores not only the collective forgetfulness about the American experience of occupation, which helps to explain the formation of the national legend, but also the gritty realities and challenges that the soldiers themselves had to endure, which she reconstructs using thousands of their letters and diaries.

The book does not take a didactic interdisciplinary approach to explain the psychological effects of military duty during the occupation. Carruthers instead weaves a nuanced analysis of soldiers during occupation in locations from North Africa and Okinawa to Germany and Japan around an elegant chronological narrative. The soldiers in her account are recognizably human. They had both high-minded ideals and selfish proclivities. They were often conflicted, especially regarding their treatment of people in occupied countries. At times, the soldiers were respectful, but they could also be derisive, racist, and abusive, often toward the same groups—as Carruthers demonstrates in Chapter 5’s discussion of American relations with Displaced Persons (dps—for example, Jews [171–179]). These complexities highlight the soldiers’ mixed feelings about their dual role, as agents of control and providers of aid.

This picture challenges the self-laudatory accounts, though Carruthers is not the first to confront such narratives. Her discussion of crimes by American soldiers, including black-market exploitation, assault, and rape, complements a growing literature describing the harsher realities of American military rule. But she does not stop at further revealing occupation’s seedy underbelly. She also traces how an initially critical home-front press and citizenry, with little time for the moral relativism of state-building, eventually erased the occupation soldiers’ anxieties, travails, and misdeeds from collective memory. This narrative gambit was part of a longer cycle in American history that Carruthers astutely identifies. At the outbreak of World War II, an anti-imperialist vision of the United States completely overwhelmed the facts regarding the extensive prior occupations of foreign territory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This willful amnesia re-emerged after World War II. Legends abounded about heroic GIs subduing the evils of caricatured Germans and Japanese, and a new mythos of American generosity to former enemies expunged the ugly parts of the occupation along with its necessary, though unglamorous, work. [End Page 284]

In the end, Carruthers sifts through the murk of popular fantasy to display the genuine experience of occupation soldiers, placing them in a broader context of American narrative construction. The picture is rarely flattering. But, as Carruthers notes, for a proper understanding of why the post–World War II occupations succeeded, we need to appreciate the moral ambiguity that surrounds them, as well as the psychological toll that they placed on soldiers. Thus, Carruther’s book is an important, and eminently readable, addition to the postwar literature.

Thomas J. Kehoe
Swinburne University of Technology