To most of us, the American GI in World War II was nothing but a hero. Certainly, in dozens of films, especially, say, Searching For Private Ryan, The Longest Day, and The Great Escape, American soldiers have been portrayed as nothing less than heroic and courageous, and that is exactly how the media – and Hollywood – has marketed them. And in the majority of cases, American soldiers deserve their heroic reputation.
So it’s interesting, if not fascinating, to note the claims of a new book that was just published, which radically portrays a much different story. I’m talking about What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France by Mary Louise Roberts (University of Chicago Press). Roberts is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. I have to say, as a private citizen, and a Boston author and marketing expert – Robert’s book was endlessly fascinating to read, and provides a mind-blowing reassessment of what really happened in France during World War II after D-Day. I couldn’t put it down, and endlessly pointed out the astonishing facts to my husband Bill, who was as equally enthralled with this point of view, as was I. I am a huge fan of all things French, and this book exposes, if you believe it, the “dirty little secret” of what really happened in France during Liberation due to the U.S. soldiers. What the Americans GIs did is not pretty, and I’m sure many people will be up in arms after reading this.
This book is all about sex.
For one thing, the book claims that the American military encouraged GIs to do battle in Normandy, by promising them romance in France afterwards, during Liberation. Certainly, there were scores of photographic images of GIs sitting atop tanks, being kissed by the ecstatic local French women. (Which their wives and girlfriends back home did not appreciate, to say the least, culminating in a photo essay with some of the American women in Life Magazine in September 1944.) One GI apparently remarked, “If this is war, I love it.” In the days after the Liberation, the American servicemen singlehandedly incited a black market, for the cigarettes, chewing gum, Coca-Cola and candy that they used in France in order to procure sex. In fact, says Roberts, American soldiers typically bought cartons of cigarettes at the PX for 50 cents each, then sold them for many times that price on the black market. French prostitutes found that the American soldiers offered them a chance to make a killing, so much so that even respectable women from good families became prostitutes, in order to obtain cigarettes so they could purchase non-rationed goods such as oranges, silk stockings and chocolate. Local French newspapers implored the women to refrain from this activity. There was apparently so much sex occurring in public places in Le Havre, a port city in Normandy, in 1945, that French officials had to complain to the American military, who did nothing about it. One profound statement, which apparently was typically heard in Normandy, was that, during the German occupation, the French had to hide their men. But when the Americans came, they had to hide their women.
The French men were simultaneously belittled, by first suffering defeat at the hands of the Germans, then being cuckolded by the Americans stationed in France. Cartoons from the Stars and Stripes military newspaper at the time showed French men portrayed as buffoons. There turned out to be a lot of resentment of the American liberators. There were also terrifying tontes – episodes where French women who collaborated with the Germans — were rounded up after the war, had their clothing stripped of them, and had their head shaved in public. These actions, asserts Robert, were attempts by French men to once again reclaim their masculinity over their women – and their nation.
This is the provocative story that I’ve never heard anywhere else, and the well-researched book is loaded with footnotes (about 80 pages of them) and impressive data to back up Roberts’ thesis. She digs up unbelievable references from soldiers and civilians at that time, and their comments back up what she makes public. This is the ugly side of the French Liberation, and one that few people – and few soldiers today – would be happy about. This book is destined to become controversial, and why I’m not reading more about it in the media, and the friction that it will inevitably cause – makes no sense to me. Or maybe it does. I’m sure that most Americans, and American soldiers – and veterans — will not appreciate this look at what Roberts says really happened in WWII France. The media loves a good controversy, and perhaps this book will make it into the mainstream. It deserves to.