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.