As a historian who has written quite a bit about World War II (okay, three books), nothing looms as large as D-Day, Operation Overlord, launched on June 6, 1944. Allied forces stormed the Normandy beaches and fought their way east to Germany. The war ended in Europe in May 1945.
What a lot of people today know about D-Day probably comes from Steven Spielberg’s 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan, which is lauded for its realistic depiction of the landing on Omaha Beach. And in 2001, fans of the movie likely tuned in to HBO’s limited series, Band of Brothers, to follow the exploits of Easy Company, the men who parachuted into Normandy. The series was based on Stephen Ambrose’s popular 1992 book of the same name.
While both of these projects benefitted from updated, modern filming techniques, the structure of their stories is decades old. Assemble a motley crew of men, give them a mission, and watch what happens. Sure, these newer film versions have vivid color and up close violence. But they don’t have the gritty black-and-white moodiness of the 1962 Darryl Zanuck epic, The Longest Day. And they don’t have John Wayne as Lt. Col. Ben Vandervoort, a real-life hero.
All of these are Hollywood, and no matter how many claims film and series creators make for authenticity, they cannot be regarded as accurate history. Scads of books have been published about D-Day. One of the most recent–and one of the best–about soldiers’ experiences in Europe is Mary Louise Roberts’s What Soldiers Do.
According to the book’s synopsis: “Roberts tells the fascinating and troubling story of how the US military command systematically spread—and then exploited—the myth of French women as sexually experienced and available. The resulting chaos—ranging from flagrant public sex with prostitutes to outright rape and rampant venereal disease—horrified the war-weary and demoralized French population. The sexual predation, and the blithe response of the American military leadership, also caused serious friction between the two nations just as they were attempting to settle questions of long-term control over the liberated territories and the restoration of French sovereignty.”
This view of D-Day and its aftermath isn’t likely to make it to the screen, big or little. But for those interested in a deeper understanding of World War II, Roberts’s book is essential reading.