HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. - The enormous popularity of books and movies celebrating the "greatest generation" and its "good war" should remind us of two important points about collective memory.
First, war for winners and losers is a myth-creating experience for all societies. Second, a complete portrait of war includes accounts of soldiers' ugly behavior.
It is strangely peculiar that the flood of material on World War II soldiers is so silent on the second subject. As we celebrate Memorial Day and anticipate the 57th anniversary of D-Day, it would be an act of great self-deception to continue to ignore the war's underbelly.
From examining the 34 volumes of military court opinions written by U.S. Army judges in World War II's European Theater of Operations (ETO), we have documented that U.S. soldiers committed gratuitous rapes and other serious crimes against allied and enemy civilians and the U.S. Army. Their crimes included murders, various assaults, race riots, house break-ins, thefts, black market racketeering and desertions, among others.
The first recorded rape that led to a court martial occurred in Maghull, England, Oct. 8, 1942. It involved a 34-year-old woman. She was knocked off her bike at night, dragged into a field and assaulted by a 32-year-old GI.
Between this crime and the last recorded rape on April 12, 1945, the U.S. Army conducted 44 public rape trials in England alone. Most of these rapes (30) had one assailant. But 14 rapes involved 29 "buddy rapists" who helped each other commit the crimes. Sometimes they assisted each other by holding the victim down and assaulting anyone who attempted to intervene.
Between D-Day and early 1945, the Army conducted at least 78 rape trials in France involving 129 rapists. Unlike in England, where lone assailants committed most of the rapes, most rapes in France involved more than one soldier.
One case had five rapists and a 54-year-old woman. While she was being raped, soldiers fought among themselves for who would be next in line. Most of the lone rapists and buddy rapists were in the Army's service divisions. There were more rapes during August 1944 (32) than any other month; on some days as many as four rapes occurred.
More than half of the ETO rapes, nearly 500, occurred in Germany. It was not uncommon for these rapes to occur at night with the help of buddies. Germany's youngest victim was 3 years old.
This is a troubling picture.
It is disquieting to recognize that there is every reason to think that the number of recorded rapes represent only a small fraction of the assaults actually committed.
Reporting a rape was difficult at times because of the conditions of war. And sometimes the victims were discouraged by friends and relatives from making a report. Unlike today, when wartime rape victims may have support groups, the ETO victims most likely suffered in silence and alone.
The ETO rapes differed significantly from similar crimes for which Serb soldiers were recently convicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. For example, there is no record that U.S. troops detained their rape victims in poor living conditions or deprived them of food. Neither were they forced to cook or do household chores, kept available for constant use, sold or given to other soldiers for sexual purposes.
In fact, some ETO soldier-rapists "compensated" their victims with money, tobacco and drinks. Yet the personal consequences for the victims and their families were probably no less painful. The rapes by U.S. solders were very often drunken and fleeting chance encounters with lasting brutal results.
Those accused and tried for rape may have been themselves victims of a discriminatory and prejudicial system of military justice. At the level of punishment there is no doubt that black ETO soldiers were disproportionately executed for capital crimes. While they comprised only about 10 percent of the ETO forces, they accounted for nearly 80 percent of the 70 U.S. soldiers executed in the ETO. No white soldier was executed in England for rape. All of the soldiers executed were of low rank.
It's time we examined the underbelly of World War II. To ignore it is to be illusional. Let us keep the record straight so that we might remember the complete picture. We, including our allies and former enemies, deserve nothing less.
J. Robert Lilly is the Regents Professor of Sociology at Northern Kentucky University. Francois Le Roy is a lecturer in the history department there.