Summary: Here Martin van Creveld reviews a book about an important new book documenting rape by US troops during WWII. With the passage of time we’re slowly able to see the full horror of the “good war”, the dark deeds done by both sides. This clear sight of the past can hep us prevent it repeating, providing an antidote to the glorification of war that arises as when we blank out these memories.
By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 9 April 2014
Posted with his generous permission
Review of What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France by Mary Louise Roberts (2013).
What alerted me to the existence of this book was a radio program to which I happened to listen one fine Saturday morning. The way it was presented, Mary Lou Roberts, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had caused a stir by drawing her readers’ attention to the sexual misbehavior of American troops in France during the period from June 1944 to VE Day. Another feminist tear-jerker about bad men abusing poor innocent women, I thought.
As it turned out, the book is anything but. In her introduction, Prof. Roberts dwells on the realistic premise that any attempt to understand the relationship between the United States and France as it developed after the Normandy landings cannot limit itself to high-level diplomatic exchanges alone. It should, instead, look at the way GIs — as many as four million of them, serving under General Eisenhower — interacted with the French population and the French population, with the GIs. The more so because those interactions both reflected and created the images both sides formed of each other; images which in turn were not without impact on high-level diplomatic exchanges and decisions.
Speaking of interaction, the problem of sex neither can nor should be avoided. And it is on sex that Prof. Roberts trains her telescope.
The introduction apart, the book falls into three parts dealing with romance, prostitution and rape respectively. To start with romance, countless French women of all walks of life allowed themselves to be seduced by American soldiers. Unlike French men, humiliated by defeat and often all but penniless, the GIs were big, strong and healthy. In contrast to French men, some two million of whom were still in Germany, either locked up in prisoner of war camps or else working there, they were also available.
What is more, the GIs were willing and able to supply French women with mundane but essential products such as food, chocolate, and, above all, cigarettes. Is it any wonder that romance, including the kind of romance that resulted in marriage, was rife?
Other women, including some who had previously offered their services to the Germans, actively solicited GIs and slept with them on a more or less regular, more or less professional basis. The more time went on and the initial enthusiasm of liberation waned, the greater the tendency to put things on a businesslike, if often sordid, basis; in a sense, the whole of France was turned into a single gigantic brothel.
There also appear to have been numerous cases of rape. As I pointed out in my 1982 book, Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945, the US Army executed far more of its soldiers for rape/murder than for desertion.
Rape, however, is not as straightforward a concept as some feminists claim. Instead it has many different degrees. It starts with the kind of incident in which a soldier seizes some totally unknown woman, drags here into a dark alley, and uses violence to force her to have sex with him. It ends with a man and a woman, even such as have known each other for some time, spending an evening together. They flirt, dance and drink, after which the former becomes a little too insistent and the latter, a little more yielding than, having sobered up, she feels she should have been. In such cases the sex that takes place is often seen by one side sees as consensual and by other as forced.
Throughout her book Prof. Roberts rightly emphasizes the enormous economic advantage even the lowliest GI enjoyed over most French people with whom he was in contact and whom the war had turned into beggars. Against this background, as well as the fact that most soldiers did not stay in one place but were constantly being transferred, no wonder the line between rape, prostitution and romance was often a fine one.
In exploring the relationship, the sexual relationship above all, between Americans and French, liberators and liberated, men and women, rich and poor, Prof. Roberts has done the literature a signal service. For American readers, perhaps the most interesting is the last chapter with its detailed exploration of the way the U.S Army and French public opinion collaborated in creating an image of black soldiers as hyper-sexualized savages and treating them accordingly.
It is, unfortunately, necessary to mention three points that somewhat mar her otherwise excellent book. First, the author does not know much about military life and war, and its shows. As, for example, when she says that “an armored vision” — in reality, probably a tank or two — destroyed a French train. Second, the text is highly repetitive. Often the same episodes, even the same phrases, are found in more than one chapter.
Finally, a more systematic comparison with the situation during the four years of German occupation, by offering perspective, would have been useful. How did French women behave towards Wehrmacht soldiers, and vice versa? What role did the fact that the Germans came as occupiers and the Americans as liberators play? Did relations between French women and German soldiers differ from those they developed with American ones, and, if so, in what ways? How representative are the things that happened in France in 1944 of human behavior in similar situations? As things are, all we get is some tantalizing hints.
In this context I am struck by a memory which has been with me for thirty years or so. At some time around 1980 I was working at the West German Military Archive (Bundesarchiv/Militaerarchiv, BAMA for short) in Freiburg. I came across a document — I no longer have a clue as to who was addressing whom, and for what purpose — which said that American troops in France in the second half of 1944 raped more French women than German ones had during four years of occupation. Assuming the claim is true, there may be some kind of lesson there; though just what it is, is blowing in the wind.
About the Author
Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.
The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.
Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. He has written about the history of war, such as The Age of Airpower. He has written about the tools of war: Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present.
Some of his books discuss the methods of war: Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.
Perhaps most important are his books examine the evolution of war, such as Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (IMO the best work to date about modern war), The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, and (my favorite) The Culture of War.
He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than our!) and Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?.
He’s written one of the most influential books of our generation about war, his magnum opus — the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century.
For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.