- What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France by Mary Louis Roberts
Mary Louis Roberts brilliantly demonstrates how gendered interactions between soldiers and civilians provides a powerful lens for understanding the broader implications of war on society in What [End Page 534] Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France. Adding to an expanding body of work, she offers far more that a thematic narrative of sex after liberation by probing how the Americans and French viewed each other in their roles as liberator and liberated. Roberts convincingly argues that the U.S. military sold the war to GIs through erotic imagery, while Frenchmen suffered broken spirits from their inability to protect their homeland, hastening hostilities between the allies. During the liberation, inability to protect transitioned into “diminished national prestige” exemplified through the inability to control women’s bodies (p. 256).
Roberts divides the interactions between GIs and French women into romance, prostitution, and rape. In part one, American soldiers trek across a much-feminized France as both liberator and tourist. French women were often happy to engage these well-supplied men in sexual relationships for reasons ranging from receipt of gifts to simple attraction. Roberts establishes the tensions between the American military myth of masculinity and feelings of failure among a worn population of Frenchmen unable to protect their homes from occupation. Roberts proves GIs flaunted masculine superiority in numerous ways, including showing more respect for German soldiers than rescued French prisoners to blatantly propositioning women on the streets in front of their husbands or boyfriends.
In parts two and three, Roberts argues that prostitution and rape reshaped postwar Franco-American relations. As the American presence dragged on, the casual encounters of the early liberation were replaced with an industry driven by American demand and plagued with corruption and violence. Strangely, only here does venereal disease (VD) become a focus of the book, as VD concerned most GIs. Roberts uses memoirs, police reports, and venereal disease reports to trace patterns and geographies of prostitution in France, in Paris in particular. Rape cases, conversely, received more attention in rural areas. Supporting existing works, Roberts places African American soldiers at the center of the discourse on rape in World War II France; the U.S. military “chose to scapegoat black soldiers” in the face of French fears (p. 228). [End Page 535]
What Soldiers Do is a significant contribution to the fields of World War II, gender, and cultural history. By approaching the lives of GIs and liberated French through a transnational lens of gender and sexuality, Roberts presents a vivid account of the interactions between soldiers and civilians and their role in shaping Franco-American relations. Roberts is particularly good at providing voices to figures who would otherwise be lost to history. Her approach to the patterns and meanings of sexual encounters during liberation challenges the glamorized depictions of the Greatest Generation by illustrating the gritty realities of war and occupation, but she does so without undermining their sacrifices. Rather, her work presents readers with a new perspective of an often overlooked reality of warfare and deserves a space on the bookshelves of scholars and the general public alike.
AMANDA BOCZAR is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Kentucky. She is currently working on her dissertation, “Foreign Affairs: The Policy and Culture of Intimate Encounters during the American War in Vietnam,” which studies the role of intimacy between American military personnel and Vietnamese civilians from roughly 1960 to 1975.