Thursday, May 23, 2013

Soldiers Behaving Badly

I read a book review in the New York Times that ties in nicely with the theme of the last post, the fact that  people of different countries have varying perspectives of WWII. The book reviewed is "What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France" by Mary Louise Roberts. The book was just released, so I haven't had time to read it yet, but it is definitely going on my wishlist.

Roberts, a professor of French History at the University of Wisconsin, has mined French archives and U.S. military records to bring to light an apparent epidemic of sexual assaults committed by members of the American military upon French civilians during WWII. She makes the argument that these crimes were encouraged by American military propaganda dished out to soldiers prior to the D-day invasion, overlooked if not condoned by the military authority, and the knowledge of it concealed from the public back home.

As pointed out in the New York Times article, we have collectively mythologized WWII as "the good war" fought by "the greatest generation." I hasten to add a caveat: I believe (and I doubt many would argue with me) that the accomplishments of the American military, industry, and home front during the war were incredible. However, we have heard, and easily believe and retain, stories of wartime atrocities committed by the enemy (primarily the Germans and the Japanese) and even our allies (Soviets). But we're loath to read about any systemic criminal activity on the part of our own soldiers, much less war crimes committed against civilians, particularly rape and murder. But as Stanford's Professor David Kennedy is quoted in the New York Times, we should not be saying "aha," but instead be saying, "of course."

Several times in my life I have either read or heard someone utter some derivation of the statement "yes, bad things happen in war" when presented with a story of an American war crime. As if they are really saying, "sure, sure, now...can we move on to a story of American valor and courage where we are, of course, the good guys?" No doubt that WWII history is a genre that is consumed by the public. And most popular historians will write about subjects that sell. The story presented in "What Soldiers Do" is a wonderful example of the beneficial work that academic historians do. Someone needs to look at the tough subjects, even if they won't be popular in the marketplace. Terrible things do happen in war. But if we want to stop them from occurring, we have know about them. At the risk of being criticized for quoting Dr. Phil, "monsters live in the dark."


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