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The Body Politic | The Nation

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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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Counter to the rape narrative are consensual sexual relationships between foreign soldiers and local women. For the home population, these relationships challenge cries for sovereignty by suggesting that women, and thereby the country, are submitting willingly to outside control. In liberated France, as Roberts describes, French women accused of having sexual relations with the German occupiers were publicly punished by French men. Members of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI)—Resistance fighters—brutalized women with what was known as the tonte ritual. After liberation, they seized alleged female “collaborators” and, in public spaces, stripped them, beat them and shaved their heads. Then they paraded the humiliated women through the streets, flaunting the repossession of territory that had been temporarily lost.  

“What do you give a shit if I have declared my ass an open city?” Roberts quotes one French woman, about to be subjected to the tonte ritual. The historian imagines that the FFI member holding the shears “might have answered that, in fact, he cared a great deal. In his mind an open city and an open set of legs amounted to the same thing.” To French men, relationships between French women and US soldiers were potentially as menacing—“they threaten to cut the girls’ hair if they go out with Yanks,” one GI said—but to the US military, these relationships were primarily an opportunity for good PR. 

In What Soldiers Do, Roberts illustrates how the military worked to present its mission in France as a joyful heterosexual romance, with America as the strapping male partner. These sexualized domestic terms, which played upon American fantasies of an erotic, hedonistic France—a land overflowing with wine and wanton women—were useful because they indicated international unity, naturalized America’s dominance and motivated weary troops.

The US military created this myth in large part through photojournalism, just then becoming a highly successful tool of propaganda that signaled authenticity but permitted manipulation. Photographs in Life magazine and Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, showed the liberating GIs showered with kisses from ecstatically grateful French women. A photograph published in Stars and Stripes in September 1944 below the headline “Here’s What We’re Fighting For” depicts attractive French women crowded together, waving and elated. Roberts exposes the falseness of this image, which is actually a “clumsily pasted together” composite of photographs and drawings: “Stars and Stripes was clearly determined to create a happy female crowd, even if one did not exist.” 

Stars and Stripes still uses stories of romance to quell larger anxieties about the military’s presence abroad. In Okinawa, I attended a baby shower for a local woman whose husband had been killed recently in Iraq. At 25, Hotaru Nakama Ferschke was fresh-faced and striking, with black hair and faint glitter around her large eyes. Before coming to the party, I had learned about her and her late husband, Michael Ferschke Jr., by reading Stars and Stripes. According to the paper, Hotaru had met her husband-to-be—a 21-year-old white Marine sergeant from Tennessee—at a party on Camp Schwab the previous year. When he asked her out, she replied no; with their cultural differences, she thought it would never work. But he persisted. “We discussed the different environments and cultures we grew up with and the difficulties we may face,” the paper quoted Hotaru as saying. “After a good talk, we both were convinced that we would be able to overcome any differences.” 

A few months later, the relationship was serious: Hotaru spent Christmas with Michael in his hometown, a rural environment Hotaru “instantly liked” because it called to mind her own hometown in Okinawa. “I knew that I would fit in the town. And more than anything else, his family and relatives all accepted me so warmly.” Back in Okinawa, Michael decided to extend his re-enlistment another four years. His mother told the newspaper he’d said “he had not done his job yet. He said he was a team leader and he had to go with his men.” He knew that, by extending, he would be deployed to Iraq.  

A month after he’d left, Hotaru realized she was pregnant. Michael pronounced the baby a miracle and the couple quickly arranged to marry by proxy. In July 2008, the couple wed. In August, Michael was killed in a firefight while clearing abandoned houses in the desert north of Baghdad. 

At the baby shower, Hotaru stayed mostly quiet, one hand on her belly, her expression at once knowing and uneasy. Stars and Stripes had reported that she planned to move with the baby to Tennessee to live with her late husband’s parents. “I realized that it was best to raise him in the environment where his father grew up, so that he would feel his father’s presence and be proud of him,” the paper quoted her. When a guest at the shower asked about the move, Hotaru admitted that she was terrified. She was scared to live with near-strangers. She was scared she’d miss Japanese food. She was scared about the language barrier; she didn’t speak much English. Stars and Stripes hadn’t mentioned these fears, which echoed her initial concerns about navigating a cross-cultural relationship. 

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As Roberts points out, Stars and Stripes emerged as a propaganda vehicle during World War II. Michael and Hotaru’s story, like the American soldiers receiving appreciative kisses from French women, makes good military publicity: his passionate patriotism and ultimate sacrifice, her allayed worries, their international love story, the swelling embrace of the military community. “I have received tremendous support from the Marine Corps,” Hotaru was quoted in Stars and Stripes. Through her story, the paper hints at popular Okinawan concerns about the American presence—that the co-existence of local people and the US military is irreconcilable—and shuts them down. The soldier, standing in for his nation, kindly but firmly asserts that this is just another battle to be won. And America is proved right—a loving union results, with Okinawa a happy and devoted subordinate to a paternal if mostly moribund United States. 

“The history of war,” Roberts writes, “cannot be separated from the history of the body.” Beyond combat, the bodies involved—the ones that physically connect, flesh upon flesh—are usually those of male soldiers, arrived from a foreign land to liberate, destroy or occupy, and those of female civilians, attracted or yanked into the military world. The interactions between them are intimate yet iconic, private yet political. A rape by an American soldier threatens to expose harsh realities about American hegemony; another GI’s part in an international romance suggests an entire country’s willing deference to benevolent US control. Harnessed for propaganda and protest, tangled in injustices like institutional lynching, these sexual relationships are essential to understanding war and its aftermath. 

In Normandy, interactions between US soldiers and French civilians, which Roberts so meticulously and rivetingly details in What Soldiers Do, began on D-Day in 1944 and ended when the last troops departed a few years later. In Okinawa, US military-civilian relations began with the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 and persist to this day, playing out in the early morning hours in nightclubs and fast-food joints across the island.

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