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What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France Hardcover – May 17, 2013

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Editorial Reviews


“In this vivid account of GIs in wartime France, Mary Lou Roberts documents how the Greatest Generation was sometimes as badly behaved beyond the battlefield as it was brave in combat. What Soldiers Do is not a conventional history. It deeply—and often colorfully—textures our understanding of the experiences of men at war, the contours of mid-twentieth-century sexual (and racial) mores, and the frequently ignorant and even lurid attitudes toward other peoples that attended America's ascent to global hegemony.”

(David M. Kennedy, author of Freedom from Fear)

"Mary Louise Roberts's provocative counter-narrative of America's 'good war' reveals the fraught entanglements of gender and race, sex, sexual violence and racism, commerce and romance, in the Franco-American encounter from D-day through the first year of uneasy peace.  Rigorously researched and evocatively written, What Soldiers Do  analyses the centrality, both material and symbolic, of women and their bodies to France's ambiguous relationship as a liberated but dishonored nation with the newly dominant American victors and demonstrates yet again--in disturbing detail--how much 'foreign affairs' are indeed about sex and gender."

(Atina Grossmann, Cooper Union)

"This is a book that matters. It will provoke heated discussion and critical responses from those who are made uncomfortable by its arguments, and those arguments merit engagement both by those who agree and by those who might not want to face the evidence that the author has gathered so expertly. The prose is bracingly clear, the argument is free of sensationalist exaggeration, and, most important, it is persuasive. This remarkable book deserves to be widely read."

(Joshua Cole, University of Michigan)

"This remarkable book attacks the myth of the 'Greatest Generation' by showing that young Americans went to war in Europe to find sex rather than to sacrifice themselves for Europe's salvation. It stands as a corrective to all the best-selling celebratory renderings of World War II in the United States over the past quarter century. It will be shocking and controversial."

(Bonnie Smith, Rutgers University)

“This clear-eyed examination of what randy American soldiers got up to in France from D-Day through 1946 strips away the sentimentality from the overworked, clichéd portrayal of the Greatest Generation.”
(Publishers Weekly)

"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. . . . In excavating and analyzing the story, Roberts is superb--asking the right questions, digging for answers, scrupulously considering all possibilities, and openly admitting the unknowns. . . . Roberts’s book is an extremely important contribution to a matter badly neglected, even among anti-war scholars.”

"A remarkable study that complicates the view of the liberation of France and casts doubt on the moral character of the vaunted 'greatest generation'of Americans. She vividly depicts the impact of the influx of hundreds of thousands of GIS on French society, especially on French women. . . . A powerful reminder of the dark side of the liberation."
(Foreign Affairs)

“Throughout this book the links between sex, the body, national and transnational politics are made plain. While some readers may query the argument that the behaviour of GIs can be conceptualised as the 'growing pains' of a nation moving into world leadership, many will appreciate this nuanced history of sex, war and power. The sexual behaviour of an army, and the sexual abuse it propagates, are to do with more than the personal choices of select individuals. Looking beyond 'a few bad hats', as British Army officers are wont to say of abusers, is instructive, not just for a deeper understanding of the complex liberation of France but also of the broader links between military power, sexual dominance and gender relations.”

(Times Higher Education)

About the Author

Mary Louise Roberts is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin and the author of Disruptive Acts: The New Woman in Fin de Siècle France and Civilization without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Post-war France, 1918–1928.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; First Edition edition (May 17, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226923096
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226923093
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #560,618 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

This book was a fascinating read.
Amazon Customer
Note the simplistic explanation of sexual relations in economic terms - as if some of these women did not also have a soul.
One GI apparently remarked, "If this is war, I love it."
Debbi Kickham

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

130 of 146 people found the following review helpful By GI Joe on June 16, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I concur with many of the criticisms in the reviews of this book--e.g. its lack of understanding of wartime behavior; its citing of Bill Mauldin's "UP Front" and of the GI newspaper, Stars and Stripes as though they were official spokesmen for U.S. military policy, its failure to consider the point of view or motivations of the French women themselves whom it treats simplistically as mere victims, its misuse of pictures of French women kissing GIs as evidence of sexual surrender. (on VJ day, still in uniform, I was kissed in the street by a middle-aged American woman; I doubt she had sexual intercourse in mind.)
As a combat infantry veteran of the European campaign, I would like to add some of my personal observations. 1. In his remark about the necessary connection between fighting and f--ing, Patton, my commanding general, as usual, didn't understand his own men. I'm here to tell Old Blood and Guts's ghost that the last thing his soldiers thought about in combat was sex; the first thing they thought about when not in combat was--sex. That they regarded access to women as one of their rewards is something I never felt nor heard from my superiors or my fellow soldiers. Moreover, the author's misunderstanding of American military policy vis a vis the sexual behavior of its troops is evident to anyone who served. From basic training to replacement depot on the way into combat, the military authorities worked hard to discourage us from random and unprotected sex. Never did I see or hear of a military- run brothel, although in Stars and Stripes I once read of a German brothel for officers only, serving both German and Allied personnel)When the War ended I was in Germany where the U.S. command announced--and strictly enforced--a Non Fraternization policy.
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63 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on June 2, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
'With the Germans the men had to hide themselves but when the Americans arrived we had to hide the women.' This exasperated phrase, from a French man of course, summarizes the book - though at the cost of much fascinating detail.

This book is about the painful challenge posed to French society by the long dreamed of end of German occupation, seen through the frame of the sexual responses of French women and American soldiers. Despite the bizarre and titillating theme ('Sex and the American GI in WWII France'), the book brings the reader into the lives and thoughts of the people at the time. While those lives and thoughts were eerily similar to our own, they were also shockingly different.

For roughly a year, from summer 1944 to summer 1945, France saw the expulsion of the German occupiers and then the voluntary departure of the armies that freed them. The liberation, though welcome, destabilized French society and the book is a story through a sexual lens of that destabilization and how a new equilibrium was formed.

During the German occupation, France was devoid of men. Germany held two million military age French males as prisoners/hostages and many other French men were in the resistance or otherwise hiding. As a conquered nation, France itself was systematically stripped of anything that might be useful to the German war effort and basic goods of all kinds were absent. France lived in a kind of grinding poverty, even as they remembered their relative prosperity before the war.

Deprived of men and basic luxuries for more than four years, to French women struggling through their daily lives the first American soldiers appeared as virile, glorious, gorgeous liberating heroes. The body count showed they were willing to give their lives to save France.
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47 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Sceptique500 on June 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover
To sum up a pretty longish review: Driven by ideology and essentialism, this book masquerades as cultural history. It is bad history, for it takes correlation for causality (Part I). It is bad gender history because it buries the experience of the encounter between GIs and French women under the stigma of prostitution (Part II). It is unfair, for it focuses on rape and fails even to mention the happy end of the spectrum - the women who made a life for themselves in the US (Part III).

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing" is a heuristic going back to the Ancient Greeks. History can be written by the wily fox with an eye to the past's complexity and contingency - such story-telling tries to recover the path-dependent outcome of today. History can also be written around a fixed idea compelling enough to provide consistency and inevitability - Marxism comes to mind.

This book is written by a hedgehog. The overarching idea of this book is: "sexual behavior stood at the center of the story in the form of myth, symbol, and model of power. (...) GI conduct was neither innocent of power nor unimportant in effect. (...) This book brings sex to the center of the story and demonstrates its profoundly political character at this moment. Historians have amply demonstrated that sexual contact between GIs and women shaped American foreign policy and the "Americanization" of defeated Japan and Germany (sic). This book builds on such work by demonstrating that postwar transnational relations, far from being confined to diplomatic and political circles, were shaped at every level of societies, and often emerged though specific cultures of gender and sexuality." (Pg.
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