What Soldiers Do
What Soldiers Do
Sex and the American GI in World War II France
University of Chicago Press, Hardcover, 9780226923093, 351pp.
Publication Date: May 17, 2013
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.
“In this vivid account of GIs in wartime France, Mary Lou Roberts documents how the Greatest Generation was sometimes as badly behaved beyond the battlefield as it was brave in combat. What Soldiers Do is not a conventional history. It deeply—and often colorfully—textures our understanding of the experiences of men at war, the contours of mid-twentieth-century sexual (and racial) mores, and the frequently ignorant and even lurid attitudes toward other peoples that attended America's ascent to global hegemony.”
-David M. Kennedy, author of Freedom from Fear
"Mary Louise Roberts's provocative counter-narrative of America's 'good war' reveals the fraught entanglements of gender and race, sex, sexual violence and racism, commerce and romance, in the Franco-American encounter from D-day through the first year of uneasy peace. Rigorously researched and evocatively written, What Soldiers Do analyses the centrality, both material and symbolic, of women and their bodies to France's ambiguous relationship as a liberated but dishonored nation with the newly dominant American victors and demonstrates yet again--in disturbing detail--how much 'foreign affairs' are indeed about sex and gender."
-Atina Grossmann, Cooper Union
"This is a book that matters. It will provoke heated discussion and critical responses from those who are made uncomfortable by its arguments, and those arguments merit engagement both by those who agree and by those who might not want to face the evidence that the author has gathered so expertly. The prose is bracingly clear, the argument is free of sensationalist exaggeration, and, most important, it is persuasive. This remarkable book deserves to be widely read."
-Joshua Cole, University of Michigan
"This remarkable book attacks the myth of the 'Greatest Generation' by showing that young Americans went to war in Europe to find sex rather than to sacrifice themselves for Europe's salvation. It stands as a corrective to all the best-selling celebratory renderings of World War II in the United States over the past quarter century. It will be shocking and controversial."
-Bonnie Smith, Rutgers University
“This clear-eyed examination of what randy American soldiers got up to in France from D-Day through 1946 strips away the sentimentality from the overworked, clichéd portrayal of the Greatest Generation.”