- What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France by Mary Louise Roberts
The fates of France and the United States were intimately linked at the end of the Second World War. It was in France where Americans made their most important contribution to winning the war in Europe and in France where Americans first occupied a once great imperial power. The flipside of American ascendancy was French decline and humiliation. The country that had once colonized large parts of North America was forced to rely on Americans to expel German invaders from its territory in 1944 and liberate roughly two million prisoners of war and laborers from German soil in 1945. Once liberated, the French faced the reality of a diminished role on the world stage under a de facto American military occupation. In this engagingly written, meticulously researched, and unfailingly interesting book, Mary Louise Roberts reads the Franco-American wartime encounter through the lenses of sex and gender. In the process, she forces us to reconsider both Franco-American relations at this pivotal midcentury moment and the myths that were created in the two countries to spur soldiers and civilians on during the war and to burnish the legacy of ignoble behaviors in its aftermath.
At the book’s core is a persuasive argument about the centrality of sex to the American military effort in wartime and post-Liberation France. Although this is not, as Roberts acknowledges, new territory for historians of Germany and Japan, it is for those who study France. In keeping with the best scholarship on the history of sexuality, Roberts’s approach is multidimensional. She is interested not just in the sex that American soldiers and French women were having but also in the ways that sex, ideas about sex, and tensions over the regulation of sex figured into military strategy, policy, and propaganda and how they structured Franco-American relations, perceptions of national character, political depictions of supremacy and decline, and each nation’s understanding of masculinity. These issues have been underexplored by historians.
The starting point for Roberts’s analysis is how sexualized notions of the campaign in France were presented to soldiers in the pages of [End Page 545] the American military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Immediately following D-Day on 6 June 1944, the paper began to publish photographs of American soldiers being gazed upon adoringly or kissed by French women. American military officials thus framed the campaign to liberate France in mythic terms, as one featuring virile men who arrived from a faraway land to rescue a feminized and helpless nation. In these narratives, France was depicted as a country devoid of men and full of opportunities for (hetero) sexual adventure. The liberation of Paris in August 1944 was portrayed in particularly sexualized, not to mention historically inaccurate, terms. The Stars and Stripes depicted the retaking of the French capital, which was in reality achieved by French Resistance fighters (fighters whose own efforts, as Roberts acknowledges, were subsequently mythologized by the French), as an American achievement for which “the French demonstrated their gratitude with an orgy of kisses” (64). In these ways, Stars and Stripes “equated sexual and territorial conquest” and attempted to induce men to fight based on promises of sex (67).
Sex did not exist purely at the level of propaganda, of course. In the book’s second half, Roberts explores the varied sexual encounters that American soldiers had with French women, the circumstances that brought the parties together, and the Franco-American tensions and miscarriages of justice that resulted from wartime desperation and Franco-American misunderstandings. Roberts illustrates that GIs viewed residents of Normandy as almost hopelessly backward—and that GI perceptions of French attitudes to the body and sex were at the heart of this negative evaluation. GIs were appalled that French men felt free to urinate in public and that French women seemed unperturbed when urinating men waved at them as...