Deconstructing Our Heroes

An American GI kisses a French woman somewhere in Normandy. Times/Life Photo

An American GI kisses a French woman somewhere in Normandy. Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Sixty-nine years ago today, the Allies invaded the beaches of Normandy, France. From the moment they secured a beachhead and through the decades, the paratroopers, soldiers, sailors, and airmen that made up that armada have been heroes to millions. Many of us knew these men only as old men, not the young men they had been when they fought and suffered to free Europe from the tyranny of Nazism. When I was a kid, these guys seemed superhuman to me, despite their age. I had read how they had helped beat the villains Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini, helping to save the world, just like Superman or Batman did in the comic books I also read. From our standpoint decades later, it all seems that the war was preordained because we all want to believe that good will always defeat evil, no matter the form it takes. That’s what the comic books and the movies I was enthralled with taught me. That’s just the way life is supposed to be. It’s a childlike belief in many ways, but the good guys did win World War II.

Thus, it becomes supremely maddening to some of us when someone comes along and points out the faults of our heroes. University of Wisconsin-Madison History professor Mary Louise Roberts will appear to want to do just that in her book, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France. Roberts came across some documents in Le Havre, France, that had been sealed for nearly 70 years. The letters were between the mayor of Le Havre and the American commander in the region, a Colonel Weed. In the letters, the mayor pleads to the colonel to control his men. Also included were police reports and citizen complaints of GI behavior. Public sex, prostitution, thievery, harrassment, and rape were some of the charges against American soldiers in Normandy.

In the interest of fairness, I haven’t read Dr. Roberts’ book yet, and will hold off on judgement of it. It may prove to be a very well-researched and written book, and I honestly believe an important one, even if others may disagree with its slant or content. It at least gets the audience asking questions and talking about the subject matter, which can lead to a better understanding of warfare and human behavior. Works like this tend to get many people riled up. The hero worshippers and the true believers don’t want to hear about the terrible things that often happen in war, especially crimes committed by your own side. Veterans of any war already know such things occur on both sides, but rarely speak of them due to guilt or just wanting to forget. I’m sure Professor Roberts has already had her credentials, motives, and political leanings questioned for writing a book that explores crimes committed by American soldiers while in France. Pointing out the flaws in our heroes goes against the “Greatest Generation” moniker, which I personally do not like. You will have bad eggs in every time period, and every generation of Americans has trials and tribulations we must respond too. It is how that generation responds that matters. Besides, how many histories of the rah-rah variety do we really need? Isn’t there room in the literature of the war for a book that may make us all a little uncomfortable? I believe there is, because I don’t think you can really ever diminish what the American, Free French, British, Polish, and Canadian soldiers did in Normandy, nor throughout the war. We don’t seem to question our other ally, the Russians, all that much, and many could argue strongly that Stalin was even worse than Hitler.

But many might say-hey, wait a minute, these were American boys-how could our heroes have done such things?! For the majority of us, especially those of us that had a father, grandfather, uncle, brother, or friend fight in Normandy, it is difficult to watch our heroes get torn down, becoming something much worse and far more mortal-human.

To read more about Professor Roberts’ book, click on the link below:

What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France

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19 comments on “Deconstructing Our Heroes

  1. Tammy says:

    Seems like a new trend emerging. Revisionism with focus on the not so talked about or liked history. It levels the playing field. As long as the argument is decent with relevant sources to back up the claim I do not have a problem with it. No one is perfect. History is not always pleasant. It is the nature of the beast. I should add this one to my wish list. It looks interesting and worth a look. Why not have more books such as this? Get’s people talking and allows them to engage.

    • navyphoto22 says:

      Tammy, I couldn’t agree more!

    • Tammy, I second your thinking, the scales of justice should swing freely but the scales of history should be welded, level with one another! I must admit that I recently dropped the words revisionist or revisionism out of my own vocabulary. I came to the conclusion that they had taken on a pejorative meaning at some point, but in reality all history is either revision or the same story retold. This does not mean it is all good history (many would term David Irving a revisionist too) but the only way we change the standard accepted histories of the past is with new evidence, and revision. Oh no, I am guilty of revising revisionism, is that dangerous on a cosmic level 😉

  2. Peter Wozniak, Ph.D. says:

    I am an historian, history teacher, and grandson of a WWI vet. I also had the privilege of knowing General Pershing’s chauffeur, “Pappy Kilmurray.” Pappy told me when I was a young boy that the behavior of American troops in France “left a lot to be desired.” It is high time to get away from hagiography and move on to more balanced views. One can still be passionate about a cause, still believe in right and wrong, but one must be capable of recognizing that “gray” tends to be a truer color than black or white.

  3. As long as the revisionism is done to enrich and clarify a subject it should be welcome. It is just naïve to assume that of the 16 millions Americans mobilized during WWII all would be good apples.
    That should not take away from the heroism so many displayed or from what they had to endure to help free the world from Nazim and militarism.

    And in a way, this type of study gives us a better understanding of the American experience in subsequent wars. For that I mean, that for far too long we have been presented with a WWII experience way too-sanitized (everyone was a hero, there was no drug abuse, and neither criminal behavior) to which Korean, Vietnam and even current wars’ veterans could not measure up to.

    War is an ugly affair and it may bring the best out people but also the worse in them- let’s just hope our troops keep on doing better than the opposing armies when trust into combat and that the overwhelming majority of the time they do the right thing.

  4. I am the daughter of a WWII paratrooper, Arthur Dutch Schultz, who was portrayed in the war movie The Longest Day, and also written about in many books, including those by Stephen Ambrose. My dad was a hero, but the story which is told about him ends when his war did. The trauma he suffered and the struggles he had after the war dealing with PTSD in the days before it was acknowledged were common, but until we children of war traumatized WWII veterans began writing in the past decade, the myth has been one sided. Heroes yes, but not helped a bit by the VA once they returned home. Left to struggle in isolation along with their families.

    • navyphoto22 says:

      Carol, I couldn’t have said it any better than you have. My grandfather only ever spoke about the war with me, his eldest grandchild. My mother told me that just before his death, they watched ‘Saving Private Ryan’ together and it was the only time she ever saw him cry. I often wonder what memories the movie stirred up for him-undoubtedly seeing friends get killed, having to kill in order to survive, and all the other horrors associated with war. I’ve read a great deal about your father, and about many other men that lived through the war, and the common perception is that they came home, got jobs, married, and had kids-which many of them did. But what about those that experienced nightmares and mental illness, alcoholism, failed marriages, ignored and/or abused wives or children, feelings of isolation and depression that many WWII vets went through upon their return home? You rarely hear about that because we have mythologized the men of the WWII generation so thoroughly that the general public sees them as nothing but heroes, and not regular human beings that were deeply affected, even traumatized, by the things they did and witnessed. I think it’s an important thing to bring these topics out in the open so we can then help vets from other (and future) wars get the help they need.

      • The best historical perspective on this issue is written by Thomas Childers, Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming – he is the son of a WWII veteran and a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Dale Maharidge, a son of a WWII Marine, has recently released Bringing Mulligan Home, a book about his father’s war trauma. Lella Levinson’s Gated Grief recounts the turmoil in her family. Her father was an army doctor and was present at Dachau for 2 weeks giving medical treatment to the concentration camp survivors. My book, The Hidden Legacy of World War II: A Daughter’s Journey of Discovery, deals not only with my dad’s trauma, but also the trauma experienced by other children of combat veterans. There are other books also; the common theme that I and the above authors have experienced is that there are so many children of WWII vets who contact us to say that their fathers and families dealt with the same issues.

      • navyphoto22 says:

        Carol,

        Thank you for the sources! I will definitely be reading some of these books.

  5. As an Oral Historian, I recall shooting one interview that was very upsetting to a colleague, who was conducting the interview. The cause of his distress was a WWII GI that had admitted to taking rings off of dead soldiers, as souvenirs, which he kept or sold. It was very upsetting too, because many of those we had previously interviewed from this unit, were humble and very honorable. Having heard so many stories of people coming to a crossroad and making the honorable decision, made it easier to hold these veterans in high esteem and to place them on pedestals. Coming face-to-face with this man who had so honestly admitted to taking advantage of an opportunity that the environment of the battlefield had provided, was too much for my friend and it started to affect his approach to the interview. During a tape change, we regrouped and the remainder of the interview went smoothly.

    Afterwards we had a long talk about the realties of what people might do on a battlefield or in a theater of war, that they may never have done as a civilian at home. We also spoke of the contrast of this man’s honesty and the possibility that others we had spoken to may also have had darker stories to share, but did not feel comfortable to do so, or did not have his seeming lack of shame for the action.

    Wars are full of atrocities, but history tends to white-wash the efforts of the victors and demonize those of the defeated. It has only been through the courage of some individuals (victims or witnesses) and the drive of some journalist to shed light on these stories, that the greater public has become more aware that our soldiers too can fall to the ravages of war, no matter how great the cause.

    Two documentaries that come to mind are:

    Silent Shame, Dir. Akiko Izumitani
    The invisible War, Dir. Kirby Dick

    • navyphoto22 says:

      Thank you Robert. For some reason, the taking of souveniers from the dead on the battlefield has never bothered me (of course, this is coming from someone that’s never been on a real-time battlefield before). Soldiers from all sides no doubt took part, to some extent or another. Taking rations, water, or cigarettes from a fallen foe is one thing, but taking of personal items another. I’m sure I’d be mad if I had caught a prisoner that was wearing a dead comrade’s boots or found a photo taken from a dead buddy, but it seems that the taking of various uniform items, weapons, etc., as souveniers has been done for centuries. A ritualistic to-the-victor-belong-the-spoils kind of thing. But it beats cutting the ears, phallus, or heads off of the enemy and keeping those. I’m sure many people will have differing opinions on this, and I’ve gotta tell ya Robert, you’ve given me an idea for an upcoming blogpost! Thanks again!

  6. Navy Photo 22, Great topic, and it looks like another good book to add to my reading list, thank you very much–and for the chance to add my thoughts. I am something of the mindset that the “Greatest Generation”, as basically conceived by Mr. Brokaw, is basically revisionist history itself. A wonderful concept to sell books, but it is not a centrist history made up of facts, it is is made up of truths. I ran across Kenneth D. Rose’s book on this very subject some years ago and suggest it as well. “Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II” also delves into the realities of human nature–and the ever present graft in the U.S. during war–in an effort to re-balance the scales. Acceptance of human frailty and strengths, and acknowledgment of each when and where appropriate is critical. The deeds, factually considered, are usually far more amazing when it is realized they were accomplished not by heroes, but by a bunch of scared kids just trying to do the right thing.

    • navyphoto22 says:

      Thank you Bruce, I will check out Mr. Rose’s book. Sounds right up my alley!

      • You are very welcome, it is my pleasure. I have found over the years that my centrist view is a defensible position, but often gets me shot at from both sides. WWII is what I refer to as a “sexy war” and as such is the subject of many larger than life backward views. WWI, not so sexy, so our views, fewer in number, are more realistic. Span-Am war and Philippines really not sexy, especially the latter, so no attention paid. ACW, very sexy again…I think you see my point. The more popularity (an odd word to use) a war has the more likely the reflections of it will be skewed.

        I hope if you read the Rose book you will share your thoughts here. Again, thank you for allowing me the chance to participate.

      • The Rose book is excellent. I reference it in my book, The Hidden Legacy of WWII. It supports my personal experience with my paratrooper father. Documentation of the reality of the war versus how it has been mythologized.

  7. Carol, Thank you for your view of the book, as you probably know it has received mixed reviews, but I tend to take that with a grain of salt anyway. Is it not interesting that we were asked to believe that somehow, in the midst of all the turmoil and violence of war, people somehow changed and became only good? People are, and always have been, people. From their shinning successes to their lows of weakness and cowardice–just people. This is what I strive to show in my writing, the reason history can be so interesting is because we have so much in common with those who came before–and so many differences.

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