What Soldiers Do
Sex and the American GI in World War II France
That’s not the picture of the Greatest Generation that we’ve been given, but it’s the one Mary Louise Roberts paints to devastating effect in What Soldiers Do. Drawing on an incredible range of sources, including news reports, propaganda and training materials, official planning documents, wartime diaries, and memoirs, Roberts tells the fascinating and troubling story of how the US military command systematically spread—and then exploited—the myth of French women as sexually experienced and available. The resulting chaos—ranging from flagrant public sex with prostitutes to outright rape and rampant venereal disease—horrified the war-weary and demoralized French population. The sexual predation, and the blithe response of the American military leadership, also caused serious friction between the two nations just as they were attempting to settle questions of long-term control over the liberated territories and the restoration of French sovereignty.
While never denying the achievement of D-Day, or the bravery of the soldiers who took part, What Soldiers Do reminds us that history is always more useful—and more interesting—when it is most honest, and when it goes beyond the burnished beauty of nostalgia to grapple with the real lives and real mistakes of the people who lived it.
Part One: Romance
Part Two: Prostitution
Part Three: Rape
“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.”
"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."
"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."
"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."
“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.”
American Historical Association: AHA-George Louis Beer Prize
Society for French Historical Studies: Gilbert Chinard Prize