What Soliders Do: Sex and the American GI in WWII France

Wednesday, 3 July 2013 | A Public Affair
(Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Traditionally, Americans have been presented with the picture of American GIs swooping in on D-Day to rescue the French, including the forever-grateful French women. Mary Louise Roberts, a U.W. Madison French history professor and author of “What Soliders Do”, re-researches the typical portrayals of French-U.S. relations and more critically examines this idealistic picture of the “French kiss”.

Roberts has always been a patriot and a World War II buff, and over time she became interested in the story of Normandy from the French perspective. As she points out, there are no French civilians who even make an appearance in Hollywood’s Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan. As she began her research, however, she began to stumble upon disturbing police records of theft, prostitution, and sexual assault.

As a short summary of the book by the University of Chicago Press questions, “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.”

(Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Years and stacks of thorough research later, Roberts has compiled a compelling and educational record of the American occupation of France and what it meant for the French people. Specifically, she focuses on the idea of sex as a form of power and way to dominate the French and assert the U.S.’s emerging global hegemony. She also explains the contradiction between the commanders who promoted the idea of French women as sexually experienced and easy in magazines such as a Stars and Stripes, but refused to regulate sex so that the American “sweethearts waiting back home” wouldn’t find out, which led to an explosion of widespread prostitution and rampant venereal disease.

Finally, she discussed the sense of entitlement by soldiers, and while never denying the achievement of D-Day and still a staunch patriot herself, explains how the continuation of the belief that sexual fulfillment is necessary and even justified could actually hurt our armed forces – as seen in controversies over sexual assault in the military today.

Listen the entire interview:

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