What Armies Do: Women Under Occupation

What Armies Do: Women Under Occupation

What Soldiers Do:
Sex and the American GI in World War II France

by Mary Louise Roberts
University of Chicago Press, 2013, 368 pp.

The title of Mary Louise Roberts’s new book, What Soldiers Do, says it all: sexual abuses are not the product of aberrant, badly disciplined soldiers, but of soldiering itself. And behind the title is an implied correlate: What Armies Do.

Carefully, keeping her anger in check, and with wit, deep research, and telling vignettes, Mary Louise Roberts has given us a masterful study of sexual transactions between American GIs and French women in the Second World War. It is a case study of the violence practiced, but censored, by all militaries: the sexual abuse of women. Now that the United States has massive “peacetime” armed forces that include women, the abuse is often directed at other soldiers.

Roberts studied 4 million American GIs who disembarked in the Upper Normandy port of Le Havre between October 1944 and October 1945. The French were awed as the soldiers poured in with their tanks, trucks, and jeeps, as their engineers reconstructed the harbor and built bridges with stunning speed. As one French observer put it, “At this instant, witnessing this enormous accumulation of power, I became aware…” that the GIs were “representatives of a new world….”

But the French were not prepared for the destruction wreaked by their American allies as they pushed eastward. They created what Roberts calls “a surreal…spectacle of deliverance and death.” The Americans dropped 503,000 tons of bombs on France and killed 35,317 civilians. (The B-17 bombers were inaccurate, frequently missing their targets.) No doubt much of the destruction was unavoidable, but not all of it. The U.S. military was determined not to let Charles de Gaulle and his French forces become liberators, and thereby the arbiters of a new French government; de Gaulle was informed of the Normandy landing at the last minute so as to prevent his forces from active participation. Some of the French believed, not entirely without justification, that the United States wanted to turn their country into an American colony.

This background is essential to understanding Roberts’s argument, because the GIs entered Normandy not only as victors but with disdain for the French, whom they considered cowardly and ineffectual. The wealth and even the generosity of the GIs only heightened their sense of superiority and the humiliation felt by Frenchmen. While many in France were hungry and homeless, GI commissaries overflowed with coffee, chocolate, soap, and those “erotically charged and deliciously sensual” products, cigarettes. The French not only craved cigarettes but, in one of the many gripping details Roberts offers, particularly liked the “blond” or blended American tobacco, which was not yet standard in France. And the divisibility and p...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: