Milton Bass: New variation on old theme



Tom Brokaw wrote a book in 1998 in which he described my generation as the greatest ever in the history of our country because we survived the Great Depression, won World War II (abetted by those on the home front) and then came home to rebuild America into the leading superpower. I have used the phrase not only to describe myself in ironic terms but also to highlight the antics of various politicians.

A historian named Mary Louise Roberts, professor of French history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has a book coming out next month titled "What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American
G. I. in World War II France." Ms. Roberts spent several months digging through American military archives and French court reports to bolster her thesis. She concluded that the GIs hit France with the goal of tasting the delights of French women rather than freeing them from German occupation.

My division landed at Cherbourg, France, on D-Day plus 90 and all my concentration was on getting down the side of the troop ship on the rope ladder to the portable raft ferrying me and my overloaded ditty bag to the bomb-scarred docks. A few of my companions didn't quite make it and landed in the cold sea water but nobody was drowned and we were loaded into trucks that took us to camp. For the duration of the war the only females I encountered were shopworn farm women or little girls.

Ms. Roberts doesn't try to take away from our military exploits, but she does come up with some interesting tidbits on the sexual aspects of war and participants. The mayor of Le Havre in August 1945 wrote a letter to the American commanders asking them to set up brothels outside his city which was then rampant with frustrated GIs roaming the streets and making no distinction between which were nice girls and which prostitutes. The commanders did not even reply.

An article in The New York Times by Jennifer Schuessler tells how most of the charges were against black soldiers probably because they had not yet been turned into combat units and were mostly stationed in supply units in the rear areas. My own detachment consisted mostly of Texans and their racial bias was open and uncluttered.

Ms. Roberts also says much of the French accusations were on shaky ground, and that she herself was not out "to sour the story of Normandy" where so many Americans struggled and died.


It's interesting to have this book coming out when we have such a hubbub going on about the Pentagon revealing that 26,000 service members had been sexually assaulted in 2012, almost a third more than the previous two years.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave the commencement speech at the United States Military Academy this year and he implored the new second lieutenants to do something about the "scourge" of sexual assaults that has occurred in the past year. Out of the 26,000 estimated criminal attacks, only 3,374 women and men reported them to higher authorities. This is because military leaders have been deficient in enforcing their own rules. There is supposed to be zero tolerance for such crimes but they have been mostly shrugged off in the past.

At a recent hearing conducted by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain, a military hero in his day, spoke up about the problem.

"Just last night," he said, "a woman came to me and said her daughter wanted to join the military and could I give my unqualified support for her doing so. I could not." This was said in front of the top leaders of our military, seated in a block, so that the reflection from their decorations blinded the eyes of spectators.

But the real firebrand at the hearing was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., whom I have admired from the first day she stepped into the political arena.

In a loud voice, reflecting the passion behind her remarks, she berated the generals and admirals for not doing their duty. And she had a beautiful end note to her diatribe when she said, "Not every commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape." In their defense, the top brass pleaded that they have been busy fighting wars and didn't have time to consider such matters. They did not want any of their powers taken away over such a thing as rape because they needed to retain order and cohesion. Some of the sexual cases in recent years have involved generals. How cohesive can that be?

There are seven women on the Armed Services Committee this time around. We haven't heard the last of this matter.

Milton Bass is a regular Eagle


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