On Nov. 22, 1944, the United States Army hanged Privates Arthur Davis and Charles Jordan for the crime of rape. They were likely not guilty. But they were African American. What happened to them happened to many others, their real transgression being soldiering while black, in a racist army, in a racist part of France. Mary Louise Roberts, who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has put before us Davis’ and Jordan’s story and those of many of their compatriots, in her recent book, “What Soldiers Do.”
Roberts starts with some amazing statistics: From the Normandy invasion in June 1944 to October 1944, there had been 152 U.S. rape trials by court martial in the European Theater of Operations; in 139 of those cases the defendants were “colored.” In the years 1944 and 1945, 29 GIs were hanged for rape; 25 were African Americans. And the U.S. invasion force was 90% white. This begs the question what on earth was going on.
It appears, as Roberts carefully parses the available evidence, that a lot of things were going on, some of them of contemporary relevance.
Roberts devotes several expository chapters to the background. American soldiers, black and white, came to France primed for sex. This was no accident; in-house propaganda, for instance in Stars and Stripes, the military daily newspaper, unsubtly conveyed the message that France was full of willing jeunes femmes (e.g. the repetitive shots of liberating GIs being kissed by pretty young women, language lessons for GIs imparting seductive phrases, for instance “Are your parents at home?”). For young men in the prime of life, far from home and exposed daily to the trauma of war in the bocage, this would have been throwing fuel on a fire. Military leaders have always known how soldiers instinctively recoil from Thanatos into Eros; in General Patton’s phrase: “If they don’t f—, they don’t fight.”
Nothing could have prepared France for this wave of amorous Americans. There was an existing officially-regulated system of French brothels, but it simply fell apart once the Invasion came, as impoverished women freelanced as independent prostitutes, often in exchange for the cigarettes and chocolate in servicemen’s rations. All accounts of the era seem to agree that the wave of prostitution kicked off by American arrival in France was epic and unprecedented.
And there were also accounts of rape. Roberts notes that there were two waves of rape accusations, in summer 1944 and spring 1945, each coinciding with “breakout” periods of the Allied offensive, and that a great many of those accusations were proven unfounded — 41 percent in July 1944, for instance. Roberts contends that this wave of often patently false accusations was largely a reaction to anxiety, specifically among the Normans and Bretons, at the presence among them of black American soldiers (an anxiety not shared by Germans who by contrast did not blame black GIs disproportionately for rape). It turned out that prejudice against people of color was not simply an American phenomenon. The French came by it independently, based on their own experience as colonizers in Africa, a bit of social history Roberts documents convincingly.
This might not have been what Americans, black or white, had been led to expect, Roberts writes: African Americans who had visited Paris during or after World War I might have mistaken what one might call the Josephine Baker neighborhood for all of France. Actually, Paris was the one area in France where color did not matter much. In places like Normandy and Brittany, where the war was fought, the stereotype of dark-skinned people as sex-crazed savages, unfortunately also prevalent among white Americans, enjoyed considerable currency.
The consequences of this stereotype could be devastating: women, whether prostitutes or girlfriends, found with black servicemen sometimes cried rape to avoid the stigma, Roberts writes. And, because of the language barrier, the actions of a black soldier trying to romance a Frenchwoman or negotiate a trick might be misinterpreted, as might the Frenchwoman’s response.
Roberts also notes the historical fact that the American soldiers best situated to be making such overtures were those behind the front lines, who were disproportionately black; black soldiers were largely segregated in support specialties and placed in rear areas where interactions between civilians and soldiers were more likely to occur.
Public relations problem
But according to Roberts, the doom of soldiers like Davis and Jordan was really sealed by the agendas and outlooks of American commanders. It was no secret among the brass that the aggressive sexuality of the U.S. occupiers had become a significant irritant with the increasingly restive French, and that this irritation could trigger a stateside public relations problem. If the French complaints came to the ears of American wives and girlfriends who had lent their men to the war effort, this could have an effect on morale on the home front.
Consciously or unconsciously, the decision was to brand the claimed epidemic of rape on black GIs.
It was shockingly easy to do. Complaining witnesses were pressured to identify black suspects. Credible alibi claims were simply ignored by prosecutors, Roberts writes. Defense counsel were not made available. No efforts were made to procure defense witnesses from units that had moved on. Military judges, all white, routinely accepted the word of white witnesses over that of black defendants. There seem not to have been appeals, though there were some instances of clemency. And time was manipulated in ways not remotely consistent with due process; the time from charge to trial could be less than a week, which meant there could seldom be meaningful trial preparation, and there might be a short timetable from sentence to execution.
And so the public relations problem in France was contained. Contained because, as Roberts shows, the French press had recovered only to a rudimentary state, so the real objective was to use word-of-mouth to stimulate a public awareness that something was being done. The local public does become aware when the hangings are public and staged near the site of the alleged crime, which was how the military did it. And the hoped-for public conclusion would be that the bulk of the occupiers, the white ones, were not to be feared. That conclusion, however, would be strictly for the French, and not for stateside Americans, particularly not black ones. There was a conscious and remarkably successful effort to keep the black American press just as ignorant of the prosecutions and hangings of black soldiers as the rural French were aware of them.
This story has some contemporary resonance. These days, the argument over rape courts-martial starts with the complaint that offenders are under-charged and under-punished because of command interference. On its face, this sounds like a contradictory story to the one Roberts tells. And yet command interference seems to be at the root of both problems.
Roberts’ book is a powerful argument that we should get commanders out of the process of deciding who gets charged with rape, whether defendants are convicted, and what the sentence should be if they are. History shows that rape charges are too explosive, either too opportune or too inconvenient to the military mission, and too tied up with public opinion, to be fairly determined in any way by those whose focus is the mission.