Today, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we celebrate one of the most storied moments of “the good war,” when the forces of freedom and democracy stormed the beaches of Normandy to liberate France and, ultimately, the rest of Europe. But how accurate is our memory of this event?
In joining the global war effort, the U.S. government and military claimed to fight for the Four Freedoms and decried Hitler’s racist ideology. But they also scapegoated African American soldiers for sexual crimes abroad, used false stories about rape to justify racial segregation at home and ignored sexual crimes committed by white GIs.
By romanticizing World War II, we have neglected to confront the darker underbelly of American military engagement, which perpetuated racial inequality and a militant form of misogyny, both of which were intensely violent. The racialization of rape had consequences for black soldiers, who are often excluded from popular representations of the “greatest generation.” But it also meant that many of the women who experienced violence at soldiers’ hands went unrecognized and uncompensated. Sexual violence was a flash point for conflict between the United States and its allies throughout the war, and it remains a problem in American bases around the world today in places like Okinawa. Rape is not ancillary to war, but inherent to war-making.
After American troops landed on the shores of Normandy, complaints of rape committed by GIs began to spike. They soared again in the spring of 1945 as the Allies crossed the Rhine and advanced into Germany. Omar Bradley, commander of the largest group of armies on the continent, warned Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower in April 1945 that “certain conditions of looting, pillaging, wanton destruction, rape and other crimes” were widespread in enemy territory. Alexander Patch, commander of the Seventh Army, wrote that “the situation is one in which it is believed emergency action is required.” A postwar Army report confirmed these concerns: The situation was “ripe for violent sex crimes,” it concluded, “and the avalanche came.”
But instead of bringing soldiers to trial, most rape cases concerning white soldiers were swept under the rug, dismissed as a consequence of the war’s chaos. When one combat soldier was convicted of raping three women in the midst of the battle for the German city of Dessau in 1945, army legal advisers referred him for psychiatric testing. They believed that the only explanation for the “extraordinary lasciviousness” of the soldier’s “violent and lustful course of conduct” was that he had lost his mind. The incident, the military judges stressed, was decidedly “not the case of a soldier going out to have intercourse to ‘get it out of his system,’ " the usual explanation, and justification, for white soldiers’ sexual violence.
But black soldiers were not afforded the same benefit of the doubt. Military authorities described a rape case concerning black soldiers as “a scene of brutal and lustful savagery which found few equals in the whole annals of American legal history.”
This was reflective of broader problems. Neither military courts nor disciplinary policy were designed to cope with the volume of cases that arose. Legal and police institutions exhibited a level of disorganization that reflected shortsightedness and crippling biases. Guided by the belief that black soldiers were more prone to crime, especially sexual crime, military police arrested black soldiers for minor infractions while they were unable or unwilling to take action in cases that involved white soldiers.
This was especially true for elite troops, whose privileged status often conferred a certain bravado and promoted cultures of impunity. When soldiers of the renowned 101st Airborne Division, famously portrayed in the “Band of Brothers” television series, raped several women and girls in a French town in the summer of 1945 after their participation in the victory over Nazi Germany, not a single person was arrested or tried. The division’s commander, Maxwell D. Taylor, who would go on to become the 40th superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President John F. Kennedy, as well as the ambassador to South Vietnam, justified the violence by attributing the problem to the “vigorous” nature of paratroopers.
The aggressive behavior of these specialized soldiers, Taylor suggested, was an occupational hazard, an unfortunate side effect of necessary martial prowess. When the French police asked him to impose a curfew, Taylor refused, stating “the men just came back from Germany, and it was necessary for a little fun” before he took “extraordinary measures.” Not only was their violence expected, then: as elite soldiers, it was sometimes considered their right. “We were members of a conquering army and we came as conquerors,” as one postwar army report noted. “The rates of reported rapes sprang skyward.”
Our historical amnesia about sexual crimes committed by Americans in World War II shows just how successful the U.S. military was in downplaying complaints of rape. While 4 million men went to Europe to fight — 3.5 million of whom were whites of varying ethnic and religious identities — only 461 were ultimately held responsible for rape: 205 white, 256 black.
The U.S. military was a reflection of the society from which it was drawn. White American assumptions of racial and gender superiority did not evaporate in the cauldron of war. In the end, the bonds of brotherhood frequently prevailed over justice. And justice itself was biased.
Throughout the war, disciplinary boards exercised clemency more often for white combat troops than for black service troops because their martial performance was taken to be a reflection of their moral character. For white GIs, brotherhood, alongside a belief in the righteousness of their cause, could promote impunity and stifle accountability, even as it provided solace to men under fire. As long as black GIs were excluded from this American family, denied access to combat roles for most of the war and viewed by their white commanders with suspicion, they would continue to be disproportionately blamed for crimes in Europe while white soldiers’ crimes went unreported and unpunished.
This not only concealed violence against women. It also left black veterans incarcerated or executed at much higher rates than white soldiers. Their families also suffered, losing the financial benefits of service. It didn’t stop there. Such stories fueled opposition to civil rights in the postwar period. One woman from Georgia wrote to her local newspaper in 1945 to oppose “Negro citizenship,” urging fellow white Americans to read “how many of them had to be disarmed because of their attacks on defenseless white women of European countries … read of their desertions from their ranks … Go read how many of those white boys died while the Negroes cowered in the rear.”
In short, the military was a key producer of racialized rape myths during World War II, which army commanders and white supremacist political figures were able to use to their advantage. This situation persists: In 2005, soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division raped and murdered a 14-year-old girl in Iraq, highlighting the continuity of the military’s racial and gendered violence over time.
It can be difficult to confront these darker aspects of history. But to see Nazism as an absolute evil does not require that we view the United States as an absolute good. Even in our most celebrated of wars, soldiers have done terrible things.