6/5/13 - soldiers and sex

In today's selection -- histories of war tend to treat sex as "an ahistorical sideshow," but since the beginning of time, war has often been deeply intertwined with sex -- whether romantic sex, prostitution or rape. Histories of World War II are notable for omitting reference to sex, with popular historians such as Stephen Ambrose making only passing reference to "girls." Yet wars are fought largely by young men, and the propaganda, politics, and power struggles of war are often realized or expressed in sexual terms:

"In the summer of 1945, thousands of American GIs overran Le Havre, a port city in Normandy. With the war over, the soldiers were waiting for a boat home. A year earlier the Allies had freed the region from German control. The people of Le Havre were not ungrateful, but they now found their city virtually occupied by their liberators. Le Havre was in a state of siege, bemoaned the mayor Pierre Voisin in a letter to Colonel Weed, the American regional commander. The good citizens of his city were unable to take a walk in the park or visit the grave of a loved one without coming across a GI engaged in sex with a prostitute. At night, drunken soldiers roamed the street look­ing for sex, and as a result 'respectable' women could not walk alone. Not only were 'scenes contrary to decency' taking place day and night, complained Voisin, but 'the fact that youthful eyes are exposed to such public spectacles is not only scandalous but intolerable.'

"Voisin had already dispatched policemen to patrol the parks, but the GIs ignored them. He had tried putting the prostitutes on trains to Paris, but flush with cash, the women got off at the first stop and took taxis back. So the mayor was writing Weed yet again. Could the Amer­icans construct a regulated brothel north of town? ...

"But Voisin was wasting his time. In a return letter, Weed washed his hands of the crisis. Prostitution was Voisin's problem, not his, Weed replied. ... Weed was not the only American commander to dismiss the French on matters of sex. Like many officers, he probably thought they would not even notice the sight of sex in public. Wasn't sex a French specialty? Why then would public sex bother them? Indeed, the GIs had grown up hearing stories of sexual adventure from fa­thers who fought in France in 1917-18. Such stories led a generation of men to believe that France was a land of wine, women, and song. Bill Mauldin's 1944 cartoon of a soldier proclaiming 'This is th'town my pappy told me about' played on this image of an eroticized France. In the months before and after the landings, mili­tary propaganda gave such preconceptions new life for a second gen­eration of soldiers. As a result the general opinion along the line was that, in Life journalist Joe Weston's words, 'France was a tremendous brothel inhabited by 40,000,000 hedonists who spent all their time eating, drinking [and] making love.' ...

"Because the US military equated France with libidinal satisfaction, sex became integral to how it construed the Normandy campaign. With very few exceptions the GIs had no emotional attachment to the French people or the cause of their freedom. How, then, to mo­tivate the soldiers to fight? In other theaters of war, military propa­gandists had used pinups -- images of gorgeous all-American girls like Rita Hayworth -- to conceive the nation in a way they believed would inspire the soldiers. Similarly, they billed the Normandy campaign as an erotic adventure. In particular, a photograph featuring a happy GI embraced by ecstatic French girls presented the American mission as a sexual romance. Disseminated in the military press, this photo portrayed the invasion in mythic terms as a mission to save French women from the evils of Nazism. Victory was defined as putting a smile on the face of la francaise who would duly reward the soldier with a kiss. In this way, propagandists played not only on sexual fantasies, but also the GI's desire to be a manly soldier -- to res­cue and protect as well as destroy and kill. ...

                                               Ralph Morse/Time Life Pictures-Getty Images

An American soldier and a Frenchwoman kissing in a picture that raised eyebrows after appearing in Life magazine in 1944.

"The myth of the manly GI turned out to be too successful. Sexual fantasies about France did indeed motivate the GI to get off the boat and fight. But such fantasies also unleashed a veritable tsunami of male lust. The GIs were known for their promiscuity in all theaters, whether European, Mediterranean, or Pacific. Still the case of Le Havre appears exceptionally bad, with the GIs having sex anywhere and everywhere in broad daylight in full public view. Brothels, parks, bombed-out buildings, cemeteries, railway tracks -- all became landscapes for sex in French cities. Paris, in particular, became a celestial city of total erotic satisfaction, though not without ill effects among the soldiers, who suffered soaring rates of venereal disease. ...

"Rape posed an even greater threat to the myth of the American mission as sexual romance. In the summer of 1944, Norman women launched a wave of rape accusations against American soldiers, threatening to destroy the erotic fantasy at the heart of the opera­tion. The specter of rape transformed the GI from rescuer-warrior to violent intruder. ... The army responded not by admitting the full range of the problem, but by scapegoating African American soldiers as the primary perpetrators of the rapes. Within the year, twenty-five black soldiers had been summarily tried and executed on French soil, hanged by rope. Cooperation between the US military and French ci­vilians account for the proliferation of rape convictions against black soldiers. Both sides shared a deadly set of racist attitudes and a fear that they were losing power. For the US military, the raped woman undermined its control over its mission in Europe. For civilians, she symbolized the loss of control over their own country."

US Propaganda Poster, WWII 


Mary Louise Roberts


What Soldiers Do


The University of Chicago Press


Copyright 2012 by The University of Chicago


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