The Good Occupation: American Soldiers And The Hazards Of Peace

By Susan L Carruthers

(Harvard University Press, £22.95)

Loading article content

Reviewed by Trevor Royle

CONTRARY to widespread belief, wars do not end with a sudden and dramatic full stop which allows peace to descend and normality to return. While mutually-agreed ceasefires or armistices can halt the shooting, all too often the violence lingers like a bad smell and it is impossible to ignore the chaos wrought by the violence and the mayhem. Sadly civilians are often caught up in the maelstrom, unwilling participants in events not of their making.

Never was this situation truer than in the summer of 1945 when the Second World War gradually came to an end with the defeat of Nazi Germany in May and Imperial Japan in August. During those long four months, the killing continued to add to the 57 million deaths caused by the conflict while the first attempts were made to rebuild a world that had been well-nigh destroyed.

As the participants struggled to come to terms with what had happened, the general feeling was one of relief mingled with longing to get back to what passed for normality. For the millions of conscripted men and women, that meant returning home to loved ones and getting out of uniform as quickly as possible. It was a natural feeling but as Susan L Carruthers shows in her important study of this period, there was to be no quick release and for some seven million US service personnel the ending of what was generally considered to have been a “good war” (in that fascism had been extirpated) was followed by a period of reluctant nation-rebuilding and general disorientation.

Based largely on previously unseen diaries and letters, the book poses the question: was the good war followed by the “good occupation” of the book’s title? As ever, there is no easy answer and from Professor Carruthers’s lucid and elegantly written account, a picture emerges of muddled thinking and ill-thought out policies as often well-meaning men and women struggled with the conundrum that the people they were trying to help were representatives of countries they had only recently been attempting to destroy.

Although she does not address the subject directly it does raise the question of whether war-fighting armies are the best people to serve as armies of occupation. Probably not: as one young GI present at the opening of the Dachau concentration camp raged in his diary, it was impossible to see such scenes and then extend the hand of friendship. His ire was sparked by the vexed business of non-fraternisation, which was allied policy in immediate post-war Germany. Officially the line was that the army of occupation was forbidden to have any contact with Germans – no “shaking hands, playing games, hobnobbing, exchanging gifts” – but unofficially the ban proved impossible to impose especially when members of the opposite sex were involved.

Soon it became apparent that liaisons were the order of the day as bored service personnel far from home looked to Germans for warmth, companionship and sex. As Carruthers wryly notes, allied commanders soon found themselves in the awkward position of “imposing a prohibition they believed unenforceable”. The problem was exacerbated by two factors: soldiers everywhere tend to make a fuss of children and most found it impossible to maintain the icy reserve that was expected of them when encountering young Germans. There was, too, the undeniable fact that officers used their superior positions to enter into relationships with German women. A not untypical comment in a letter home from one young officer was that “all Germany is just one big whore house”. In Japan, there were similar issues but these were softened by the presence of geisha girls whom one US corporal likened to nightclub entertainers at home. Even so, many of the correspondents displayed a casual racism in dealing with Japanese women which is missing from their encounters with Germans. It is indicative perhaps that the only reference to the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes in a diatribe from a US corporal who wishes that every Japanese island had been sunk in that way.

In addressing this problem from the world 70 years ago, Professor Carruthers does not shy away from more recent events. Indeed, in the first pages of her introduction she makes explicit reference to the recent US-led invasion of Iraq and the misguided belief that the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime would be followed by the kind of good sense that was supposed to have accompanied the invasions of Germany and Japan in 1945. We know to our cost that that did not happen and Iraq was soon plunged into a murderous internecine conflict. If only this excellent book had been available in 2003 things could have been very different; for as the author makes clear, there is no such thing as a good occupation.