Reconsidering the "Good War"

By Robert ZaretskyApril 6, 2014

What Soldiers Do by Mary Louise Roberts

ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago, the world stumbled into “The War To End All Wars.” With the liberation of France 70 years ago, the same world watched as the “Good War” stumbled towards its end. These anniversaries serve as bookends to the same bloody event: our own age’s Thirty Years War. These events, unprecedented in the ways they marshaled new technologies and ideologies to mobilize vast armies, galvanize entire populations, and work toward exterminating yet others, has generated an equally unprecedented literature. The monographs and memoirs, prose and poetry, reflections and treatises that have issued from the Thirty-Year War would overwhelm a library of even Borgesian dimensions.

Over the next several months, LARB will review some of the most original and provocative books that these anniversaries have given readers. They will be works of history, of course, but also works of fiction and film, all reviewed with the goal of casting new light on a war not yet as old as we imagine. 


EARLIER THIS YEAR, the French Consulate in Houston invited me to an organizational meeting for this year’s double anniversary: the centenary for the beginning of World War I, and the 70th anniversary of France’s liberation during World War II. As a historian of modern France who has written on the questions of occupation, collaboration, and resistance, I was happy to participate: what better occasion to recall and reassess two world wars that, in truth, constituted a single war with a 20-year halftime? 

When I arrived for the meeting, however, I was made to recall that historians do not have a monopoly on these events. The 30 or so men and women sitting around the table introduced themselves one by one: uniformed members of the American Legion and American Veterans of Foreign Wars, officers from the Air Force base at nearby Ellington Field, and the director of the Battleship Texas Museum, along with representatives from a variety of civic and political organizations, were all present and accounted for. By the time I introduced myself, I already knew I was the only professional historian in the room.

As I gazed at the weathered and proud faces across and to either side of me, I also realized I was one of the youngest participants at the table. This is almost always a happy situation for someone who, like me, is bearing down on his own 60th anniversary. This time, though, my all-too-relative youth gave me pause — one that lengthened as the consul general began to speak. With great aplomb and intelligence, he proceeded to choreograph the various events marking the D-Day landings and Allied liberation of France. To the satisfaction of one and all, the marching orders from France were commemoration, celebration, and appreciation.

When the consul general turned to me, wondering if I could organize a conference in the context of the celebrations, I felt a twinge of professional hesitation. If the sole aim of these events was commemorative, did I really have a place at the table? Only the most cynical of historians would scorn the many reasons to celebrate these events, but only the least dedicated of them would ignore their duty to revisit, refine, and revise older interpretations of those same events. Looking around the room, I replied that my university could put together a series of academic panels for the D-Day events, but believed it made more sense to instead focus on the WWI centennial events in November. In effect, I was playing for time because not enough time had passed, still, between WWII and us.


Among the first casualties of war is historical objectivity. In his brilliant study That Noble Dream, Peter Novick traces the sorry history of American historians and their repeated betrayal of our professional credo during the several wars, hot and cold, that punctuated the 20th century. Time and again, Novick reveals how the dictates of patriotism and nationalism blasted into smithereens the “noble dream” of historical objectivity, burying below the rubble our profession’s imperative of skeptical and critical analysis. In a typical mea culpa, the prominent historian Hans Kohn wrote on the eve of WWII that he and his colleagues had, in their work as historians, “dull[ed] all sense of morality and of moral distinctions […] and thereby destroyed the possibility of any effective resistance to fascism.”

But there is more at work than the appeal to patriotism and conformism at times of national crisis. More fundamentally, the goals of modern historiography conflict with the claims of collective memory. The latter filters the past, imbuing certain occasions with meaning while ignoring yet others, creating in effect an archipelago of historical events. The historian’s task is not just to discover the other islands from a particular past, but also to revise the entire map as she makes new finds. Inevitably, those grown accustomed to the older maps will look askance at the work of these cartographers of the past, especially when they challenge assumptions about the place and meaning of the older “islands.”

Such revisionism, crucially, has nothing to do with the so-called “historical revisionism” of Holocaust deniers. Instead, revisionism is the very essence of the historical enterprise: with the passing of time, the surfacing of new documents, and the fading of old animosities, historians are duty-bound to reassess older interpretations. This is precisely why French historians refuse Holocaust deniers the label of “revisionist” altogether, and instead dismiss them as “negationists.” Behind this distinction is the recognition that true historians are necessarily revisionists. 

Few regions of our collective memory are more heavily mined than the “Good War.” During the last several years, a growing number of historians have called into question many of the accepted truths about World War II. As early as 1961, A. J. P. Taylor, in his controversial The Origins of the Second World War, argued that the war was not the spawn of Hitler’s quest for world domination, but instead was the accidental result of ham-handed diplomacy on the part of the British and French. Hitler, he argued, was engaging in traditional power politics and never intended to go to war with Western Europe; it was, instead, the indecisive and confused responses in Paris and London that led to the war’s outbreak. More recently, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, in The War of the World, dismisses the label “good war” altogether. Instead, it was a “horrible event that could only be won by using the worst possible tactics” like the carpet bombing of cities — a critique pursued by other powerful voices, like Richard Overy and Sir Max Hastings — and allowing two totalitarian powers to slug it out in the bloodlands of Eastern Europe.

The work of revision has carried into the Pacific Theater. John Dower, in War Without Mercy, meticulously presents how Americans and Japanese, through official and unofficial propaganda, transformed one another into subhuman caricatures — thus setting the stage for the barbaric violence of the Pacific War. And as the contributors to Edward Linenthal and Tom Englehardt’s History Wars explain, violence in a different register engulfed the Smithsonian Museum in the mid-1990s, when the National Air and Space Museum made plans to mount an exhibition devoted to the Enola Gay and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The conviction, for historians, that historical accounts are always, in Novick’s words, “radically selective narrativizations of events,” found little sympathy among war veterans. Instead, the museum’s mild effort to contextualize the event outraged veterans’ organizations that believed the exhibit should instead commemorate the sacrifices made by our armed forces. One of the exhibit’s curators, Tom Crouch, captured the dilemma facing the museum: “Do you want to do an exhibition intended to make veterans feel good, or do you want an exhibition that will lead our visitors to think about the consequences of the atomic bombing of Japan? Frankly, I don’t think we can do both.”


Crouch’s warning came to mind when I considered Mary Louise Roberts’s What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France. Roberts is a well respected historian at the University of Wisconsin who has written widely and wisely on issues of gender in fin-de-siècle France. In her new book, Roberts uses the prism of gender to reconsider the character and consequences of the American-led liberation of France in 1944. As with any original and important work of history, her revision to this celebrated chapter of the Good War provokes and disturbs — not from the desire to shock, but instead from the historical imperative to review and reflect.

When American forces landed on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944, French civilians had already been on the front lines for nearly a year. Since the previous fall, Allied bombers had pummeled the entire region, destroying not just the bridges, roads, and railways used by the Germans, but also the homes and farms of the French. Entire cities like Le Havre and Caen were pulverized, leaving officials to explain why the body count among French civilians was at times much higher than among German soldiers. At the same time, stray bombs had transformed the countryside into a miasmal landscape filled with the bloated bodies of countless cattle and horses, rotting in the fields and along roads. Nearly 20,000 Norman civilians lost their lives before and during the invasion, while countless others were wounded or traumatized.

Roberts recognizes both the inevitability of civilian costs and the difficulty of accepting that calculus for those bearing the brunt of it. Nevertheless, while devastated by their own losses, the local population did recognize the remarkable sacrifices made by American soldiers. In fact, they frequently risked their own lives, caring for wounded soldiers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne, informing yet others about German movements and placements. Whereas in traditional accounts of the landing, like Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day, French civilians are little more than walk-ons, Roberts emphasizes their remarkable engagement on behalf of Allied soldiers. As one Norman remarked, “these young soldiers have come from distant American lands where they could have very well lived in peace. By hundreds and thousands they have lost and continue to lose their lives in the name of freedom.”

Many of those young soldiers, Roberts recalls, also came from distant American lands with little knowledge of, but many preconceptions about, the people they were liberating. Their first contact with rural Normandy, shattered by the war, confirmed the widespread prejudice that the French were primitive and unhygienic. As one GI wrote home to his wife: “You would laugh to see them for they sure look funny with their patched clothes and wooden shoes.” 

Far more tragic, though, was another stereotype as commonplace among American soldiers as the chocolate and cigarettes they carried in their rucksacks: that France was a land of easy women and easy sex. This welcome state of affairs, in the eyes of the GIs, was made even easier by French men, whose manliness was, of course, placed in serious question by recent history. Judged incapable of defending their country and womenfolk against the Nazis, French men were ridiculed and denigrated. Roberts suggests that the US military, through their media and management of their soldiers, reinforced these views. She reproduces several photos and cartoons (many by Bill Mauldin) in Stars and Stripes portraying the French as effeminate — how could they be otherwise, given their tradition of embracing one another as a greeting? — while the GIs radiate confidence and virility.

To be sure, the burden of humiliation and shame, in the wake of defeat and occupation, weighed upon Frenchmen. With 1.5 million French soldiers imprisoned in German stalags, leaving behind a nation of women, children, and old men, Frenchmen were especially liable to, in Roberts’s awkward phrase, “gender damage.” As a character in André Chamson’s postwar novel The Last Village remarked, “The worst humiliation for a soldier is to abandon your country’s women to the whims of the conquerors.” The French Resistance, which played a crucial role in their country’s liberation, felt slighted by the Americans — an attitude they returned in spades, dismissing the American Army as too cautious, too spoiled, too dependent on technology. The dangers French and American combatants faced were equally great, but so too were their distrust and misunderstanding of one another once France was liberated. The situation was explosive, and, as Roberts suggests, “there was just not enough manhood to go around.” 

But there seemed to have been, at least in the eyes of the GIs, more than enough women to go around. As one GI recalled, everything in France was in short supply except “alcoholic beverages, bread as only the French could make it, and women.” Women should have led the list. Sex was, in fact, liberated France’s most important commodity, one with dramatic consequences for those who engaged in this commerce, as well as for ties between France and the United States. The countless women who turned to prostitution from material deprivation reinforced popular American attitudes toward a “weak” and “debased” France and came to symbolize a depraved nation. At the same time, the overwhelming demand by GIs for sex deepened French distrust and disenchantment with what quickly came to be seen as a new occupation. As one Red Cross official described the widespread attitude among soldiers: “See, aren’t we wonderful? We have liberated you. Don’t you owe us something?”

Along with the market for contraband cigarettes and food, the market for prostitution quickly became the greatest test of a fledgling French administration. The challenge was particularly fraught because the lines of authority between American officers and French officials were murky and ill defined. By dint of their technological, administrative, and economic supremacy, Army officers often dismissed or ignored local concerns or pleas. There was also the widespread conviction in the military that the GIs required sex. As General Patton famously observed, if his soldiers didn’t fuck, they didn’t fight.

The battered civilians of Le Havre, their city already reduced to rubble by American bombers — the port had become a German submarine base — now confronted their liberators. The city’s legal brothels — France long had a system of maisons closes, created for reasons of hygiene and control — were overwhelmed not just by demand, but also by supply. Young women, short of food, money, and shelter in war-ravaged France, made their way to Le Havre in the hope of finding a GI. Not only did families pass long lines of often rowdy and drunk soldiers waiting outside rogue brothels, but the commerce had also spilled into public places: the city cemetery was a favorite site. The mayor’s appeals to the local military commander to create military brothels fell on deaf ears.

That those ears weren’t open is surprising, since venereal disease quickly reached epidemic proportions among GIs. The Army’s Chief Surgeon warned that if measures were not quickly taken, the incidence of VD — what GIs called the “souvenir of Gay Paree” — would entail “serious loss of fighting efficiency.” Yet measures fell short given the ubiquity of sex: according to one study, 80 percent of unmarried soldiers, and 50 percent of married soldiers, had at least one sexual encounter during the war. Public relation campaigns were ignored, while efforts to promote the use of condoms met with derision; many soldiers used them to cover the barrels of the rifles — and not the butts, as Roberts mistakenly writes — to keep out the mud.

A veritable army of infected women, overwhelming France’s shattered medical facilities, was one tragic legacy of this cultural collision. An even more tragic and disturbing legacy, though, was that of rape by American soldiers. The crime was almost always, due to the institutionalized racism of the American Army and racial prejudices of French civilians, associated with blacks: of the 152 soldiers tried for rape in France, 139 were black. Segregated and relegated to service duties like food and laundry services, black soldiers had more contact with French civilians. This presence of black soldiers in the rear lines fused with racial stereotypes, widespread among both Americans and French, that blacks were “hypersexualized.” When one adds stark linguistic and cultural divides to these stereotypes, as well as the traumatic experience of war and liberation, blacks were frequently accused of crimes they never committed. 

Inevitably, a segregated army that numbered thousands of officers from the American South rarely questioned these accusations. Roberts’s meticulous review of the rape trials reveals a fatal pattern of racial prejudice with accusers and the military courts. Along with chocolate and cigarettes, Jim Crow turned out to be another welcome American import. In one especially gruesome detail, Roberts notes the Army’s difficulties in carrying out death sentences in France — not because the French opposed the executions, but because they used the guillotine, not the gallows. In what may well have been another Jim Crow reflex, the Army insisted on death by hanging and had to bring in specialists from the United States, including a taciturn hangman from Texas who brought his own rope.

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.

Yet none of this detracts from the importance of What Soldiers Do. Roberts never denies that the soldiers, risking and sacrificing their lives, did great and good things in France. At the same time, she rightly reminds us that there was a darker side to the liberation. Seventy years later, the question is whether time enough has passed so that history and commemoration can strike a truce and accept one another’s claims.


Robert Zaretsky is LARB’s History Editor. 

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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