World War II is remembered by Americans and American culture in very specific ways. Films such as “Saving Private Ryan” and television shows like “Band of Brothers” indicate that the United States played a central role in defeating Nazi Germany. In these narratives, American soldiers are depicted as saviors without whom Europe would have been lost. This chronicle plays heavily into notions of American exceptionalism, a cognitive astigmatism that plays into the belief that the United States is led by a uniquely abiding sense of exceptional power and virtue. While it is true that American GIs did help European forces win World War II, in her book “What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France”, Mary Louise Roberts encourages readers to question the impact of the American occupation of France on French civilians, particularly French women. In doing so, Roberts analyzes the history of how U. S. soldiers and military officials negotiated gender and sexuality, and the correlation of these negotiations on relationships between American GIs and French civilians.
Unlike other scholarship, which analyzes sex between GIs and French women as accompanying World War II, Roberts argues that sex was a central theme of the war that embodied a realignment of power between both countries. Not only did remembered tales of behavior by World War I soldiers raise expectations of French sex among GIs, so too did propaganda disseminated by newspapers and media outlets. Once in Europe, American soldiers quickly entered into sexual relationships with French women that Roberts identifies as a defining cultural encounter between the French and Americans. Heavily publicized romances of white, masculine GIs rescuing French women portrayed the U. S. as powerful and generous, in contrast to seemingly feminine and defenseless French men. Such depictions extended to the commodification of French women themselves, with GIs trading cigarettes and chocolate for sex with French prostitutes. In this manner, the U. S. military controlled French women’s bodies as a means and symbol of American authority over France. However, contradictions in the application of military policy towards prostitution indicated a less coherent vision, particularly when dealing with rape accusations directed against African-American soldiers.
Due to systematic racial bias by both France and U. S. that played off of the racial stereotypes of black men being hypersexual and predatory, African-American soldiers were accused of rape at a disproportionately high rate. This provided the U. S. military with scapegoats for the larger rape problem occurring against French women. Such actions and beliefs clearly indicate that the priority of the American military was to protect its fighting capacity and to guard its reputation; whatever happened to the French was inconsequential. In this sense, America’s de facto military occupation of France appears more like another conquest than liberation. While Roberts does not base her argument on new historical events, her lens of analysis muddies the triumphal story of European liberation and shifts focus from the war itself to those individuals most impacted by U. S. occupation in France. By drawing upon international news reports, U. S. propaganda and training materials, official planning documents from U. S. Army and French civilian administrations, and GI and Norman diaries and memoirs, Roberts allows the reader to truly understand how individuals of all ages heard, saw, and smelled the fighting and post-war aftermath around them. One limitation of Roberts’s analysis is slight discrepancies in descriptions about the initial Norman reception of Americans. For example, Roberts initially discusses how GIs and Norman civilians “often met under an umbrella of mutual mistrust”, and that GI soldiers were met not with “wild enthusiasm but instead [with] a dignified satisfaction”.
French wariness of American soldiers is understandable, but contrasts curiously to later discussions about the French treatment of fallen Americans. Roberts notes that while “a German body was left face up and bereft of belongings, an American one remained face down, a bouquet of flowers on his back”. Further analysis looks at how many French people risked their lives to give American soldiers a proper burial, which does not fit earlier discussions of mutual mistrust. “What Soldiers Do” truly encapsulates the belief that “the personal is the political”. In this sense, Roberts joins poststructuralist historians like Joan Scott who argue that meanings are political and are made, rather than naturally occurring. Roberts also deftly navigates gender history by not simply inserting the narrative of women into history. Rather, she completely reanalyzes how society was organized around sexual differences and power inequalities.
Although Roberts is critical of the American liberators in France, she does not deny their heroism and bravery. Through her analysis of the relationship between military history and the history of sexuality, Roberts calls readers to think about how military operations, society, and culture influence and affect each other not just during World War II, but also throughout history as a whole.
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