Book Review: The Good Occupation
American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace
by Susan L. Carruthers
Harvard University Press, 2016
The cover of the US edition of Rutgers history professor Susan Carruthers’ new book The Good Occupation, showing American G.I.s smiling and wandering through the ruins of Cologne at the end of the Second World War, has an ironic bite that’s revealed almost immediately as the book commences, since Carruthers wastes no time in bringing up the fiasco that will be the first thing her readers think about when they read the word “occupation”; it won’t be Germany or Japan – it’ll be Iraq in 2003 in the immediate wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when the Coalition Provisional Authority occupied Iraq with a headline-grabbing combination of clumsy graft and startling self-deception … and when President George W. Bush, in his public speeches on the subject, frequently invoked the US occupations of Germany and Japan in the wake of WWII, in which, as he described it, American troops stayed only long enough to allow freedom and democratic processes to reassert themselves, leaving out what Carruthers aptly describes as “the squalidly transactional character of life under occupation”:
This messy history is elided in the invocation of miraculous, democratizing makeovers that seemingly happened at the wave of a wand, with no lasting imprint on American military force. Strikingly, even while Bush conjured this anodyne vision, he used the term “occupying armies” only to deny that the United States had left them on former foes’ soil.
This psychological urge to airbrush that “squalidly transactional” nature of military occupation underwrites quite a few of the rather anodyne accounts of the Allied occupations of Germany and Japan, and The Good Occupation presents a bracing antidote to the temptations of sentiment, a long and detailed reminder of what the city of Boston well remembers: that there isn’t, there can’t be, any such thing as a “good” military occupation. Even at their best, conquerors are careless and distracted, and conquerors are almost never at their best.
“By the reckoning of political scientist Hajo Holborn, some 300 million people fell under US military rule at the end of the war,” Carruthers points out. “One year later, 150 million remained under the control of Allied Military Government.” This was a vast and extensively traumatized captive population, and the miracle of the Allied occupations at the end of the war is that they weren’t even more ramshackle and disastrous than they turned out to be, especially considering the ad hoc nature of so much of what happened, as Carruthers describes it:
Total war would terminate, the Allies hoped, in the Axis powers’ total defeat. But then what? Who would disarm and dismantle enemy war machines? What would be built in their place, and how long would the work of reconstruction take? The prospect of American troops occupying conquered nations for an indefinite period – or, indeed, for any period – after the war ended generated fierce controversy …
The Good Occupation dives directly into those controversies, mining a wide array of first-hand documents to create a vividly detailed picture of thousands of US troops denied the neat conclusion to their wartime service that they dreamed about during the years of fighting. Carruthers doesn’t shy away from the rapes, the looting, and the black market violence that cropped up in the Allied occupation as they have in every military occupation in the history of mankind. The venality of a significant number of US occupiers (and their commanders – General George Patton is quite dispassionately raked over the coals) is exposed in chapter after chapter of meticulous research and austerely lovely prose.
And the book allots a good deal of attention not to the occupiers but to the occupied. The attention Carruthers pays to the conquered Germans in particular is uniformly rewarding, for instance:
Germans, unsurprisingly, did not respond with equanimity to either the prospect or the fact of eviction. The surrender of homes for the victors’ inhabitation was a predictable consequence of defeat shouldered with grim acquiescence, judging from soldiers’ accounts of these initial ejections. But the American demand that Germans trade places with the Third Reich’s erstwhile victims was more unpalatable. For dislodged Germans, this reversal of roles simultaneously constituted an accusation of culpability, a demand for reparation, and an intolerable pollution of domestic purity.
The Allied occupiers of Germany and Japan dealt not only with conquered peoples but with displaced persons – hundreds of thousands of them. These soldiers, like the ones in the dust jacket photo, trudged down shell-cratered country roads and walked through once-magnificent old cities now reduced to rubble and ruins – only ruins that were still inhabited, often by survivors trying to eke out their daily existence with no shelter, no food, no water, and no hope. These people had to be accounted for, somehow, and the military nature of the occupation made it necessary that they also be controlled somehow; slave laborers were forced to continue living in their overcrowded factories – and Jewish prisoners in their concentration camps – because right from the onset the occupiers were overwhelmed by sheer size of the task that now lay before them.
That task – the postwar occupations that formed the basis of President Bush’s rosy remembrance a decade ago – has never had a more fine-grained and discriminating account than the one Carruthers has written, which is crammed full of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, out of which they laid the foundations of significant parts of the world of the present-day. Among other things, the book serves as a stark warning – if warning is necessary – that in modern warfare, things are seldom so simple as “Mission Accomplished.”