Last updated: August 6, 2013 1:51 pm

Soldiers’ stories

Historians are subjecting the actions of ordinary servicemen during the second world war to increasingly critical scrutiny
Sailor kissing a nurse in New York’s Times Square©Alfred Eisenstaedt

An American sailor kisses a nurse in Times Square, New York, during celebrations marking victory over Japan on August 14, 1945

What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France, by Mary Louise Roberts, University of Chicago Press, RRP£21, 352 pages

Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War, by Charles Glass, HarperPress, RRP£25, 400 pages

Writing War: Soldiers Record the Japanese Empire, by Aaron William Moore, Harvard University Press, RRP£33.95, 350 pages

In August 1945, Life magazine published a photograph that would become one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. Alfred Eisenstaedt’s picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in New York’s Times Square captured America’s imagination, because it represented a fairytale ending to the second world war. This was Perseus and Andromeda, St George and the princess, Superman and Lois Lane: America had vanquished a monster, and its reward was the gratitude of the world, represented here by a kiss.

Since that day, the vast majority of books, films and TV programmes about the war have perpetuated this fairy tale. In the US the second world war is still called “the Good War” and the men who fought it are known as “the greatest generation”. The Allies are portrayed as a “band of brothers” who fought their way fearlessly into the devil’s lair and lived to tell the tale. The Axis powers, by contrast, are defined by the atrocities they perpetrated: the Rape of Nanjing, the Myanmar railway, the Holocaust. Everyone else – Jews, prisoners of war, the French resistance, and so on – is given the role of the damsel in distress: violated, rescued, and ultimately grateful.

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Serious historians have always been sceptical of such mythmaking. Over the years there have been many attempts to introduce an element of nuance into the traditional ways we tell the story of the war, but these have tended to centre around specific subjects or incidents – the morality of the Allied bombing campaign, for example, or the treatment of some of our prisoners of war.

No credible historian is ever likely to question the value of the central Allied aim to bring down the Nazi regime; nevertheless, there appears to be a growing trend for historians to confront the more black-and-white aspects of the “Good War” head-on. Take that photograph of the kiss in Times Square, for example. In her recent book, What Soldiers Do, Mary Louise Roberts, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggests a rather less rosy interpretation of this picture. The kiss was not one that was offered but one that was snatched by a sailor who felt entitled to take it. Seen in the context of how American servicemen behaved in Europe, the picture becomes slightly more sinister.

 

Roberts shows how similar pictures of GIs kissing French women were published by Life almost exactly a year earlier, precisely to promote a fairytale image of the conflict. But many American soldiers had no gallantry in mind: according to Roberts their priorities were to stay alive and to get laid. In the words of one contemporary observer, the American attitude towards French women was: “We have liberated you. Don’t you owe us something?”

As a consequence of such attitudes, the D-day landings were accompanied by what Roberts calls a “veritable tsunami of male lust”, which left the local population reeling. Her research in the Normandy archives has uncovered dozens of instances of sexual assault, sexual coercion and public indecency by American soldiers. In Le Havre, for example, it became almost impossible for local people to go out without witnessing soldiers having sex in public with prostitutes. Many Frenchmen claimed that the Americans behaved far worse than the Germans had ever done: “Attacked, robbed, run over both on the street and in our houses,” wrote one.

There are problems with Roberts’ book. She does not explore the psychological link between the experience of battlefield violence and the apparently voracious need for sex. Neither does she give a sense of the scale of the problem: presumably it was only a minority of soldiers who acted like this, but what proportion is unclear. The fact that Roberts does not dwell on such subtleties tells a story in itself: she has a sacred cow to slay – she leaves it to others to come to the defence of America’s sex-obsessed GIs.

This is not the portrayal of our second world war veterans that we are used to seeing. Neither is the picture that is painted in another recent book, which similarly calls into question our image of the Allies as heroes. The journalist Charles Glass’s Deserter is a book about the 150,000 British and American soldiers who abandoned their posts between 1939 and 1945. The reason their story has never been told before owes as much to the shame that these men felt, or were made to feel, as it does to our own desire to keep our heroes on a pedestal. Nevertheless, by telling their story Glass is breaking a taboo that has stood, largely untouched, for almost 70 years.

 

Glass goes to great lengths to describe the dehumanisation that many soldiers suffered under the constant pressure of violent combat. The war Glass describes is far removed from the “band of brothers” ideal we have become used to, since many soldiers were shifted between units and never managed to forge any meaningful relationship with their comrades. The myth of the officer as father-figure, so memorably portrayed by John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), is also unceremoniously punctured. Indeed, many officers were themselves so traumatised that they were incapable of taking care of the ordinary soldiers who looked to them for guidance. Instances of bravery are common in this book, but the heroic ideal is roundly condemned as an absurd standard that most soldiers found impossible to live up to.

Despite his underlying sympathy for these men, even Glass recognises that their behaviour off the battlefield was often inexcusable. Some of the deserters in his book did not flee their units because of shell shock but because they saw an opportunity to make money, often as part of violent criminal gangs. They indulged in sexual exploitation, black market profiteering and even violent crime.

If Roberts and Glass confront the myth of the hero, then another new book by Aaron William Moore, lecturer in East Asian history at the University of Manchester, confronts the corresponding myth of the monster. In Writing War, Moore examines the second world war in Asia and the Pacific through the eyes of more than 200 Japanese, Chinese and American soldiers who wrote detailed diaries at the time.

 

Japanese soldiers, he shows, were far from being the “brainwashed robots” that many westerners still believe them to have been – indeed, they exhibited a freedom of thought and action every bit as diverse as their Chinese and American counterparts. They were eminently capable of expressing disgust at the atrocities they witnessed; and disbelief too: “Did Japanese soldiers do this?” wrote one Japanese diarist in horror in 1937, after arriving upon the carnage in Nanjing.

Likewise the idea that the Japanese had a monopoly on cruelty is also revealed as a myth. Moore recounts dozens of instances of American soldiers acting every bit as brutally as the Japanese, including hacking prisoners to death, beheading them, and keeping dried Japanese ears or fingers as gruesome mementoes of combat. As Moore baldly states: “in this regard Americans were no different than their counterparts in East Asia.” In fact, the legendary Japanese refusal to surrender was largely due to fear of torture by the Americans rather than out of any particular fanaticism.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the way that Moore analyses the actual process of diary writing by these men. In all three countries, he reveals, the thoughts and feelings of soldiers were closely monitored by their superior officers. As a consequence the sentiments they expressed were self-policed: soldiers effectively used their diaries as a way of convincing themselves to act in the way that was required of them by the state.

The implications of this are huge, and draw a question mark over one of our strongest taboos about the war. When Chinese, Japanese or American soldiers spurred themselves on to commit acts of bravery, or atrocity, how much were they expressing their own desires and how much were they resigning themselves to things that were expected of them? Does this – can this ever – at least partially absolve them of the things they did during wartime?

The fact that we can ask such questions says as much about our own time as it does about the second world war. Perhaps we are more comfortable expressing doubt now than we were a generation ago, or even 10 years ago, when we were deeply embroiled in the black-and-white certainties of the cold war or the war on terror. Perhaps the behaviour of our armed forces today – such as the Abu Ghraib scandal – has allowed us also to ask questions about how our soldiers behaved in the past.

Whatever the reasons for the recent willingness by both historians and publishers to break taboos, the myths about the good war will not slip away gently. They have endured because they make us feel good about ourselves, about our parents or grandparents and about the countries that reared us. They provide an emotional link to our past. That kiss in Times Square answers a yearning in our souls far stronger than any intellectual quest for nuance.

While reviewers and academics might welcome a new wave of revisionism, there is nothing to suggest that the general public will react accordingly. Nobody likes to see holes punctured in their dreams.

The headline and strapline of this article have been changed since publication

Keith Lowe is author of ‘Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II’ (Viking)

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Letters in response to this article:

If a photograph can’t lie, a caption can / From Mr Stan Trybulski

A book review is supposed to be critical / From Mr Brian Seelinger

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