Book Review: The Good Occupation by Susan L. Carruthers

Susan L. Carruthers, The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace, (Harvard University Press, 2017), pp.400. $29.95 • £23.95 • €27.00.

Susan Carruthers’ book fits neatly into a cadre of scholarly publications that has offered important revisions on the histories of the good war, the greatest generation and the benign façade of American adventures overseas. Mary Louise Roberts’ What Soldiers Do (2013) and Miriam Gebhardt’s Crimes Unspoken (2017) have both dealt with the gendered implications of American conquest in World War II Europe, while Aaron Belkin’s Bring Me Men (2012) and Mary A. Renda’s Taking Haiti (2001) explored the darker underside of U.S. imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century. The Good Occupation is a welcome addition to this diverse body of work.

Carruthers argues that historical amnesia has created the impression that ‘the reconstruction of Germany and Japan along liberal capitalist lines was a foregone conclusion’ in 1945 (5). In reality, however, the decision to occupy was a contested question for both Washington’s decision-makers and for soldiers on the ground, many of whom would become reluctant participants in America’s project of democratic nation-building. In fact, the prevailing belief today that the United States military is uniquely adept at the business of post-war reconstruction requires a number of convenient omissions to sustain it – including the partitioning of Germany and Korea into two hostile states, a regrettable state of affairs that for one of them continues to this day.

The most compelling part of the book is its second half, when Carruthers moves away from the story of occupation that is already somewhat known to one that is largely unknown. The sixth chapter, which deals with ‘demobilisation by demoralisation’, is the most engaging in this regard. In this section Carruthers aligns herself with scholars who have previously pointed out that the ideology of post-war occupation often bordered on the imperial. Yet what is frequently overlooked, she notes, is that while these efforts to democratise Germany and Japan augured the rise of American hegemony in the mid-twentieth century, the day-to-day toil of occupation itself was carried out by servicemen and women who were decidedly reluctant both about their continued involuntary service in the military and about the ethical implications of their work in conquered territories. Mass protests in 1946 over the slow and uneven pace of demobilisation were a clear indication of this unease. ‘During World War II,’ Carruthers argues, ‘a substantial tranche of this generation thoroughly loathed the military, an institution that often seemed to revile those same enlisted men now so revered. The demobilization frenzy that accompanied the first phase of post-war occupation reveals the depth and breadth of popular antimilitarism, subsequently lost to the purifying fire of sanctification’ (224).

Equally engaging is the history of ‘martial tourist trajectories’, which were created as soldiers of the various occupying armies traipsed across Europe on furlough (240). With cameras in hand, the soldiers were eager to capture the continent’s cultural delights and horrors of war, from the lights of Paris to the Nuremberg trials, a ticketed event for GIs. Designed to relieve the boredom of the occupation soldier and to impress upon him the necessity of long-term troop presence in the region, these European excursions often ‘became occasions better suited to reveling in military victory than contemplating the bankruptcy of enemy ideology’ (241). Far from feeling newly enlightened about their endeavours, many enlisted men were disillusioned by the impression that their superiors were using these travel opportunities as an opportunity to participate in the looting epidemic that was already causing widespread problems in occupied areas by mid-1945.

Although excerpts from WAC’s letters are a welcome inclusion in a history that frequently revolves around the affairs of men, black soldiers unfortunately get something of a short shift in Carruthers’ narrative. The differences in experience made possible by racial differences amongst soldiers become somewhat flattened across Germany and Japan, despite the nuances that the racially charged histories of both occupied territories entail. There are some nods to race: African Americans, for example, carried out much of the hard labour of occupation by virtue of their involuntary status as service troops, but whether (and how) black soldiers themselves experienced the occupations differently than their white counterparts remains under-analysed. The clashes between black and white soldiers described towards the end of book, and references to ‘African American troops’ anger at the separate and shabbier housing and social facilities to which they were consigned’, gives some clue about this experience, but only a few scattered paragraphs are devoted their stories. Hints in the penultimate chapter about the ‘blunt force with which white MPs policed black enlisted men’ and the ‘frequent dressings-down to massed ranks of black soldiers’ dished out by superiors are thus tantalising but insufficient (261). It is an unfortunate omission given that this is ostensibly the story of ‘how differently Americans thought about themselves, about the military, and about their place in the world’ and as such could have benefitted from more diverse testimony (14).

Like Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent (2012), which explores the chaos in Europe in the aftermath of the ‘worst war in history’, The Good Occupation is a powerful account of the difficulties of restoring order while confronting problems of racial prejudice, fraternisation, and repatriation (5). In this way the book offers a unique insight into the lives of people whose experience of war did not end in 1945.

Ruth Lawlor

Ruth Lawlor is a PhD candidate at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. She is currently one of the assistant editors for U.S. Studies Online and holds an Eccles Centre Fellowship at the British Library. Her research is supported by the Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Robert Gardiner Memorial Fund.

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About Ruth Lawlor

Ruth Lawlor is a PhD candidate at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. She is currently one of the assistant editors for U.S. Studies Online and holds an Eccles Centre Fellowship at the British Library. Her research is supported by the Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Robert Gardiner Memorial Fund.
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