When we think of the American GIs in Europe at the end of the Second World War, we often conjure up a familiar photograph – of a happy soldier embraced by adoring French women. Reproduced in a thousand guises, this photograph has become an icon of the liberation of Europe in 1944. So deep is the photo’s inscription in our national memory that it serves as a reminder for the “good” wars of the past. In fact, the GI photo promotes a troubling deceit : it conceals the conflict that often marked relations between the French and their American liberators. While the Normans greeted the landings with joy, carpet bombing and ground combat left thousands of civilians homeless and resentful of slow relief efforts. The liberators drank too much, drove their jeeps too fast, and went after local women. Precisely at the moment when their political stewardship of Europe called them to “greatness”, American soldiers and subsequently the American public were offered photographic images that encouraged them to identify as global rulers. As the GIs came to be understood in traditionally gendered terms as knights in shining armor, their dominance was naturalized as a “good” thing. In this way, gender norms, as they were articulated in heterosexual relations, helped to formulate American ambitions at this crucial geopolitical moment.
Cultures and LiberationsBy Mary Louise Roberts