The Body Politic | The Nation


The Body Politic

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A cartoon by Bill Mauldin from the October 24, 1944, issue of Stars and Stripes

A cartoon by Bill Mauldin from the October 24, 1944, issue of Stars and Stripes

What Soldiers Do
Sex and the American GI in World War II France.
By Mary Louise Roberts.
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It was 4 am, and I was in a McDonald’s in Naha, the capital city of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Down the street—International Street—was the nightclub that supplied the patrons at this hour: mostly US servicemen, young and bleary-eyed. 

“It’s like the American embassy in here,” one man remarked, looking around. 

My friend and I had come from the club too, but we were Asian-American women with no connection to the numerous US military bases that crowd the island. Over Quarter Pounders, we struck up a conversation with a serviceman. Justin, from Florida, was a Marine who had been stationed in Okinawa for the past ten months. He chatted with us amiably until the topic turned to the local dating scene. Then his expression went dark. He crushed a napkin in his fist and threw it onto his food tray. 

“Fuck Saicolo,” he said, naming the establishment from which we’d all come. “I want to drop a bomb on that club.”

What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France, by historian Mary Louise Roberts, suggests that this Marine’s comment is not insignificant. Roberts draws upon extensive sources, including diaries, police reports and court-martial transcripts, to examine the presence of American forces in France from 1944 to 1946. She contends that the sexual conduct of US servicemen in war should be moved from a historical footnote to “the center of the story.” Loaded with symbolism, sexual behavior in this context plays an important role in shaping the political and diplomatic negotiations of power between countries. 

This rings true to someone who, for the past few years, has been researching and writing about the relationships between US servicemen and local women in Okinawa. The situation there shares notable similarities with the historical one that Roberts describes. The American military presence in both places began with bloody World War II conflicts: D-Day and the Normandy campaign in France, the Battle of Okinawa in Japan. Although France was an ally that the United States helped to liberate from German control, Roberts illustrates that the initial exhilaration and gratitude of French citizens quickly became complicated by the humiliation of defeat, anger and sadness over the devastation of their countryside, as well as uncertainty regarding France’s place in the world. America’s international power was on the rise, while France’s had declined. Exactly who would run France’s postwar government—autonomous French leaders or the Allied military—was unclear. This, along with the disruptive and frequently violent presence of American troops in French towns, led many Normans to see the United States as a second occupier. “Le Havre was literally invaded,” one Norman resident recalled. “You could not stick your nose out the door without seeing a Jeep or a Dodge drive by, or hundreds of soldiers walking around.” Many Okinawans feel a similar indignation in a prefecture that, despite its tiny landmass, hosts more than half of the 50,000 American troops stationed in Japan. 

During the year I spent on the main island of Okinawa, from 2008 to 2009, I catalogued comments and interactions like the encounter in McDonald’s with a growing sense that they were more than just idle chatter. Justin, as he went on to explain, wanted to bomb that nightclub because he believed the Okinawan women there only wanted to date black men—and Justin was white. He wasn’t the only one with this view of island dating dynamics. Kokujo, local slang for women who prefer black men, were widely thought to be the largest subset of amejo, women who like Americans. They seemed to outnumber hakujo, women who favor white men, and spajo, women who prefer Latinos. 

The number of women in Okinawa who identified based on their racial dating preferences surprised me, but it isn’t a new phenomenon. During World War II, Roberts writes, the US military was segregated, and the women in 1940s France who dated or serviced GIs often “specialized” in Americans, sometimes those of a specific race. After US forces entered France, military officials promptly segregated the brothels by rank and race. The military is no longer segregated, but soldiers tend to socialize as if it were. In Okinawa, black enlisted men frequented Saicolo, a cavernous, glitzy hip-hop club in downtown Naha; Latino enlisted men hung out at Salsatina, a cozy salsa dance club strung with Latin-American flags; and white officers took their recreation at Eclipse, a breezy, open-air bar on the water in Chatan. (If there were night spots whose primary clientele were servicewomen or officers of color, I never heard of them.) Local women are savvy to these distinctions and make choices about racial preferences as well as military status when deciding which bars to frequent. Justin didn’t need to annihilate Saicolo; he needed to hang out at a different club.

* * *

But Justin’s comment is rooted in the violent legacy of race and sex in the US military. In the most unsettling and final part of What Soldiers Do—following a section on romance and another on prostitution—Roberts examines rape. To horrifying effect, she describes how, in 1944 Normandy, American military authorities and French civilians employed a lethal racism toward black soldiers during a summerlong spate of rape accusations. In 1944 and 1945, twenty-five of the twenty-nine men hanged for rape in the European theater of operations were black. While censoring these figures for the American public, military officials cited them internally as proof that black men were morally depraved, sexually aggressive animals. 

Roberts argues that a deadly combination of factors—pervasive stereotypes of black men, the segregation of soldiers, the legacy of Jim Crow lynching, the need for scapegoating—resulted in these racialized hangings. The alleged sexual crimes mostly occurred at night, in unlit rural areas, and amid a general atmosphere of miscommunication, wartime ruin and fear. Accusers often admitted to failing to get a good look at their assailants, but they were nevertheless confident that the men were black. Roberts cites one case in which the accuser—despite her weak eyesight and the darkness—was convinced that her rapists had been black because of their “speech, large lips and shiny skins.” American investigators often accepted such claims without question.

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