What Soldiers Do

What Soldiers Do

Sex and the American GI in World War II France

Book - 2013
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How do you convince men to charge across heavily mined beaches into deadly machine-gun fire? Do you appeal to their bonds with their fellow soldiers, their patriotism, their desire to end tyranny and mass murder? Certainly—but if you’re the US Army in 1944, you also try another tack: you dangle the lure of beautiful French women, waiting just on the other side of the wire, ready to reward their liberators in oh so many ways.

That’s not the picture of the Greatest Generation that we’ve been given, but it’s the one Mary Louise Roberts paints to devastating effect in What Soldiers Do. Drawing on an incredible range of sources, including news reports, propaganda and training materials, official planning documents, wartime diaries, and memoirs, Roberts tells the fascinating and troubling story of how the US military command systematically spread—and then exploited—the myth of French women as sexually experienced and available. The resulting chaos—ranging from flagrant public sex with prostitutes to outright rape and rampant venereal disease—horrified the war-weary and demoralized French population. The sexual predation, and the blithe response of the American military leadership, also caused serious friction between the two nations just as they were attempting to settle questions of long-term control over the liberated territories and the restoration of French sovereignty. 

While never denying the achievement of D-Day, or the bravery of the soldiers who took part, What Soldiers Do reminds us that history is always more useful—and more interesting—when it is most honest, and when it goes beyond the burnished beauty of nostalgia to grapple with the real lives and real mistakes of the people who lived it.

Baker & Taylor
Examines the American soldiers behavior in France, showing that they didn't conduct themselves well when pursuing women, and explores the larger political and marital power struggles between the allied nations of France and the U.S.

Publisher: Chicago : University of Chicago Press, [2013]
ISBN: 9780226923093
Branch Call Number: 940.531 ROBER
Characteristics: xii, 351 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm


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Oct 06, 2013

This book is a powerful puncture in the mythology of "the greatest generation" that fought in WWII. This is history that's been buried and now that it's out there, we should all endeavor to learn the truth.

The author focuses on France during WWII. She exposes the US military's repeated presentation of women as the reason and the reward for the soldiers' fighting. France had legal prostitution and hence a reputation among GIs as a sexual mecca. The devastation, hunger, homelessness, and utter lack of other ways of making money resulted in a huge increase in the number of women who survived by prostituting.

The US military had a confusing, inconsistent policy about prostitution. On the one hand, it was condemned and soldiers were forbidden to go to brothels but, on the other hand, free condoms were handed out and diagnosis and treatment of venereal disease was amply provided. The US military was segregated at the time and certain houses of prostitution were designated for African American soldiers. Some commanders even went so far as to recruit black prostitutes so that the interracial aspect that enflamed both racist white Americans and racist white Frenchmen was avoided. However, that was the exception. Most prostitutes in France were white.

Many GIs availed themselves of the opportunities but their erroneous impression that all French women were willing to prostitute resulted in vigorous complaints and even rape allegations. Although African American soldiers had expected France to be liberal about interracial sex because black expatriates who lived there had touted it as free of racism, the reality was far different. For centuries, France had been a major colonial power in Africa and had as rigid role expectations and racist paranoia as segregationists did in America. The author discusses in some depth the racist accusations, arrests, trials, and punishments that were perpetrated in France by French and American authorities against black American soldiers, many of whom were hung in public for crimes they did not commit.


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