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What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France.

What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France, by Mary Louise Roberts, University of Chicago Press, 340 pages, $30.


In What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France, author Mary Louis Roberts "explores how sex was used to negotiate authority" between the United States and France during World War II. She contends that "sexual relations came to possess larger political meanings and provide crucial models of dominance and submission"--American dominance and French submission.

Roberts argues that Americans perceived French men (and hence the nation of France) as impotent because the majority of them were either imprisoned by Germans or hiding with the French Resistance. Either way, she maintains, Frenchmen were unable to protect their women and therefore were not allowed to play a dominant role in world events after the war. Furthermore, she contends that "because the US military perceived French sexual practices as primitive, debates about sexual management also became contests over the French capacity for democratic self-rule."

It all began, says Roberts, when American World War I veterans returned home from France with tales of sexual exploits in a society with a relaxed code of morals. It was that kind of thing, she argues, that got WWII GIs "off the boat" and willing to fight. Never mind this insult paid to American soldiers, but what she doesn't mention until page 135 is that prostitution was legal in France under a strict system of supervision. So if GIs had certain expectations that things were a little different in France--well, they were.

To her credit, Roberts employs an abundance of primary sources. Her text is peppered with documented quotes from French citizens and soldiers, American GIs, and even one or two French prostitutes. And, as she promises in the introduction, her writing is very sensory-oriented. She writes very descriptively about the smell of decay after battle, the perfume of cigarette smoke, the taste of chocolate, and the sight of a countryside littered with the dead after a bombing run.

For all her exemplary use of primary source material, there is no impartiality--and no smoking gun. It is as though the conclusion came before the research. She sees, well, sex in everything. Case in point is her use of a photograph depicting a group of smiling, demurely dressed French women with the caption "Here's What We're Fighting For" that appeared in the US Army newspaper Stars and Stripes in 1944. She describes this particular photograph as photojournalism imposing "sexual relations onto American war aims" and says it illustrates how "American objectives in Europe were produced both visually and textually as a guileless drive to make women happy." The implication within the context of the argument is that if women are happy, they are more apt to put out. In actuality, the women in the photograph look more like someone's sisters or mothers than anyone's paramour, and the text that accompanied the photograph when it was originally published actually cautioned soldiers against doing things "to disgrace our Army and get the French sore."

If Roberts intends to make a serious case that "the US military used the regulation [of] the French female body not only to ensure the health of its fighting force, but also to demarcate and consolidate its power in the years 1944 to 1945"--that the American military attempted to politically dominate France in this unique fashion--then there needs to be comparative analysis to demonstrate the difference. But Roberts employs no quantitative statistical comparison (of even cases of venereal disease, which could be potentially quite telling) with other countries--England, Japan, Germany, Italy--that hosted American GIs during World War II. In short, Roberts levels hefty charges without the kind of weighty proof needed to back them.

Furthermore, Roberts does not consider that perhaps the limited influence France possessed in world affairs at war's end had less to do with sex and more to do with distrust stemming from the fact that France capitulated to Germany after six weeks of bombing (England endured eight months), the French Vichy government fought against the Allies, and General Charles De Gaulle was not the most popular guy among western Allied leaders.

Finally, the last two chapters do not contribute in any way to the overall thesis. In these chapters Roberts contends that racism within the US military led to a disproportionate number of black soldiers being charged, convicted, and hanged for rape. Although a worthy topic and one that perhaps deserves more research, its inclusion here is puzzling.

While it is a sad fact of humanity that since the beginning of time women's bodies have been used as battlefields by military combatants to punish and to exert control, and while there is no doubt that sexual crimes and immoral behavior were visited on French women by American soldiers during World War II, Roberts was not able to successfully connect the two issues in the pages of her book.

--Allyson Patton

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
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Author:Patton, Allyson
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Aug 1, 2013
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