Mary Louise Roberts, a scholar at the University of Wisconsin who has focused on “issues of gender in fin-de-siècle France,” has written a new book about the sexual behavior of American soldiers in WWII France, reviewed here in the LARB by Robert Zaretsky. According to Zaretsky, Roberts’ book, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War Two France, tells us that the French civilian population suffered horribly because of the carnage of war. And that American GIs often held stereotypes of French men as weak and French women as easily available for sex. And that myriads of French women turned in desperation to prostitution during and after the war. And that majorities of American soldiers had sexual encounters with French women during their sojourn in France. Venereal disease was a serious concern. There were also rapes committed by American soldiers and, because of American and French racism, of the 152 soldiers that were prosecuted for the crime, most were black.
With the possible exception of the last datum, all this sounds fairly well-known or at least extremely unsurprising. Yet Zaretsky writes that Roberts’ book is a kind of bold revision of what we know about WWII, that it “provokes and disturbs.” His review sets up a false dichotomy between the forces of “patriotism and conformism” on the one hand, and “the historical imperative to review and reflect” on the other. Flag-waving yokels versus nobly objective historians.
This framework is at odds with Zaretsky’s own review, which strongly suggests that what is at issue in Roberts’ book is not her historical research but the usual ideologically driven judgments that marshal such research for the tiresomely predictable biases of the academic left. Zaretsky all but admits this in the review’s penultimate paragraph:
There is a difference between what American soldiers did and what the US government and military meant to do in France — a difference that Roberts occasionally blurs. From individual instances of American crimes of commission and omission, she tends to make sweeping generalizations. Citing a handful of photos and stories in Stars and Stripes — which, it is crucial to note, was not the Army’s official organ — Roberts concludes the US military decided to use sex “to sell the campaign.” She claims, in a similar fashion, that control “of sexual commerce became a means for the US military to claim its authority over the French nation,” but she does not offer evidence of premeditation or planning. And her basic thesis, that “Sex was fundamental to how the US military framed, fought, and won the war in Europe,” is certainly provocative, but once again strikes me as an instance of serious interpretative overreach.
In other words, the book’s central argument and the evidence it attempts to use are both flawed.
Yet after announcing that Roberts’s book is skewed and unpersuasive, Zaretsky praises it for “remind[ing] us that there was a darker side to the liberation”—as if this were news—and again expresses hope that “history and commemoration can strike a truce and accept one another’s claims.” However, the issue here does not seem to be history versus commemoration, but tendentious history versus the popular understanding that while all American actions in WWII were not laudable, war, even a “good” war, is hell.