- Sex and the Greatest Generation
Last year marked the seventieth anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. Tours, exhibits, and special events celebrated the Allied landings that ultimately contributed to Nazi Germany’s defeat. The official tourism website for the Normandy region proclaimed “1944–2014 Normandy Celebrates Liberty.” The headline banner was set against a familiar backdrop: happy couples embracing and dancing in the street while one young woman kisses a soldier on the cheek and another man in uniform kisses the toddler girl he holds in his arms. This iconography is the version of the Liberation we have come to expect. Overjoyed French women embrace heroic American (and British and Canadian) soldiers as their liberators from the evils of Nazism. This romantic view of the war and the “Greatest Generation” that fought it is the subject of Mary Louise Roberts’ intriguing latest book.
Roberts seeks to complicate the history that portrays the Liberation as a carefree celebration by placing sex at the center of the war. She argues that “sex was fundamental to how the US military framed, fought, and won the war in Europe” (p. 11). Sex, she asserts, was not just a release from combat and not just marginal to the war. Instead she argues that sexual relations between soldiers and French civilians—usually considered a private affair—had broader political consequences in postwar Europe.
In order to explore these consequences, Roberts divides the book into three parts: Romance, Prostitution, and Rape. Each section examines the personal relationships between American soldiers and French civilians under these themes. Central to her examination throughout the book are the roles and consequences of myth, prejudice, and stereotype in these interactions. One of the greatest strengths of the book is its transnational approach. Roberts, a French historian by training, firmly places the history of American soldiers into the context of France at war. Unlike some comparative histories that make generalizations or offer superficial examinations of the historiography, Roberts’ book is well grounded in both the American and French literature [End Page 156] and thoroughly researched in archives on both sides of the Atlantic. (Although it would have been useful to have included a bibliography so that scholars could more easily locate sources.) In addition to being a gender history, What Soldiers Do is a nuanced social history in which individual voices of both soldiers and civilians are clearly heard.
She begins the book by examining the Normandy campaign through French eyes, arguing that previous histories of the D-Day landings focus too narrowly on military strategy and marginalize the French. She views the campaign as a complex cultural encounter between two sets of people with preconceived ideas about the other. The Americans, she contends, were both allies and enemies to the Normans. While fighting battles was essential for liberation, the Allied destruction also caused civilian deaths that led to French anger as well as GI guilt. But soldiers were not confined to the battlefield. In their daily interactions with the French, American GIs found that language barriers and different customs turned them into tourists trying to find their way in a strange new land. This navigation was influenced by the stereotypes and prejudices the soldiers carried with them, which were often confirmed by their personal experiences. The French were stereotyped as behind the times, dirty, and sexually loose. These prejudices, she argues, shaped the Army’s contention that “the French were uncivilized and in need of social and political management” (p. 55). The connection between sex, the body, and French self-governance is the major thrust of Roberts’ argument throughout the book. For Roberts, sex was political and politicized.
The second chapter addresses the role of myth in the relationship between the French and Americans by examining the iconography of the Liberation. The photo of an American GI surrounded by beaming French women appeared just days after the Normandy landings in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes and quickly spread to the mainstream...