lundi 7 janvier 2008

The dark side of the picture

Remember John Wayne in “The longest day“? Or Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan“?
These are the pictures Hollywood provided the world over to celebrate the courage and dedication of America’s best sons in the fight for freedom and democracy. The American soldier of 1944 has attained some sort of a mythic status, both in France and in the U.S.
But that picture appears to have a darker side, unknown up to now.
J. Robert Lilly, an American scholar and professor of sociology and criminology at Northern Kentucky University, alleges that thousands of crimes were committed by American soldiers in Great Britain, France and Germany. Mainly rapes. A much respected researcher, Mr. Lilly delved into the military archives in Washington and came out with a book he wrote from the “Opinions of Judge Advocate General Branch Office, European Theater of Operations.”

Using several calculation methods familiar to sociologists and criminologists, from the cases reported, Mr. Lilly asserts that members of the American forces raped about 1,500 women in Great Britain, 3,500 in France and 12,000 in Germany. In France the first rape took place on June the 14th 1944, just 8 days after the Normandy landing.
To add to the controversy, and through a tremendously well-documented bibliography one would expect from such a research, Mr. Lilly establishes that the percentage of black rapists far more exceeded their overall percentage in the American army. Up to 4 million American soldiers were in Europe during the war. Blacks accounted for about 10%. Yet they appear to account for up to 80% of the criminal cases. As a possible explanation, Mr. Lilly advances the fact that it was well known among the black community that the French were notoriously colour-blind and therefore thought to be more “friendly” to them. Add to that the stereotype of French women being easier to “seduce” than their white American counterparts, at a time when interracial diversity was next to unthinkable. A very disturbing state of affair indeed…
A documentary has been aired on a French TV channel last March. Mr. Lilly himself visited some of the places where crimes took place and interviewed residents of the villages where these misdeeds happened, and even some victims and relatives. From this reporting, it appears that the French quickly became aware of a security concern with Americans, and the newspapers of the time recount of the impatience of the populace with the seemingly unstoppable lack of discipline of the American army, to the point it became a real thorn in the foot of the commanding officers. Even Eisenhower had to deal with many cases and decide some cases individually.
Overall, 116 sentences were pronounced in France leading to 21 death penalties being carried out, some of them in front of villagers, rape victims included.
By the end of the year 1945, the situation was so tense between the American occupation forces and the French population that the Army PR branch decided to try and ease the difficulties by publishing a booklet for its soldier. Titled “112 gripes with the French” the booklet explains French values and culture, and how it can be different from the American ones.
Indeed, a poll published in the Time magazine issue of November 19, 1945 indicated that American soldiers actually felt more sympathy toward the… Germans than towards the French!
It has been said the black soldiers were arriving in France relying on souvenirs of their fathers and uncles of WWI, with a positive image of the French who welcomed them in such a friendly manner back in 1917, and who were so shocked by the way America treated its own black citizens. The white soldiers had a totally opposite stand: it is reported they had a superiority feeling toward the French whom they despised for their colour-blindness and openness toward the “niggers” and for, they thought, the swiftness of the defeat of France and the easiness with which the French learned to live with the Nazis. Nothing new under the sun…
It has long been well known fact that Russians soldiers raped many German women. Mr. Lilly shows us that they weren’t alone: the Americans committed ugly crimes too, if not on the same scale.
As it was finished after 9/11, Mr. Lilly’s book couldn’t find any publisher in America. Publishing houses saw it as “anti-American.” British publishers also passed, and it is a French publishing house, les Editions Payot, specialists of Social Sciences, which gave us the first edition of the book.
Far from seeing that as a negative, I see this as another evidence of the special link between America and France, based on truth, forthrightness and respect. And contrary to what some may have assumed, this French edition went pretty much totally unnoticed save for a few history buffs. It certainly wasn’t an opportunity for any display of anti-Americanism.
If you’re still reading, let me be clear: this post is not some sort of unfair attack on America’s past or an attempt to single out American soldiers. All armies of all countries of all times have counted many criminals in their ranks and the French certainly are no exception. So far, no French historian has tackled the issue of the French rapists in Germany or Italy for example. And it is to the honor of an American scholar to have done such a demystifying work regarding his country’s past.
But History always has the last word. Always…

Note 1: The English title is “Taken by force: Rape and American soldiers in the European Theater of Operations during World War II (England, France, Germany, 1942-1945).”

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