At the heart of this impressively researched book is the gap between history and memory: between how the U.S. military occupations of Europe and Asia after World War II were experienced by Americans and how that period came to be remembered by them. In myth and legend, the occupation era is cast as the incubation period that led to a flourishing of democracy and rebooted the economies of postwar Europe and East Asia. In carefully researching the experiences of those on the ground, primarily in Germany and Japan, and how the occupation was portrayed in the domestic United States, Carruthers confirms that no matter how it was remembered, the U.S. occupation of Germany and Japan was messy and contradictory, and only accidentally a success. The Good Occupation is the most comprehensive evaluation yet of Americans’ social experience of occupation, and a contribution to the ongoing reassessment of how and why the United States engaged with the world throughout the global conflicts of the twentieth century. Historians of Germany will find it useful as one of the few works that treats the U.S. occupation of Europe and Asia together, and the way that it places the occupation of West Germany in a global context of American interaction with the world. For historians of the German experience post-1945, Carruthers’s portrayal of American unease with democratisation is a useful counterpoint to Germans’ own ambivalence about the new political orders taking shape East and West, and the ways American racism and responses to physical difference shaped the occupation of Japan in comparison to West Germany. Covering impressive ground, Carruthers examines the U.S. occupation on two continents, and draws on vast numbers of diaries, letters, and memoirs to get at the lived experience of American soldiers. Within this swirl of Ego-Dokumente Carruthers also employs U.S. domestic sources, drawing from a variety of newspapers and magazines as well as films and other cultural products. The bulk of Carruthers’s narrative is taken up by thematic overviews of thorny long-term problems or turning points in the occupations: sex and intimate relations between occupiers and occupied, American efforts to impose order on shifting populations, the struggle to justify continued occupation to soldiers and their families back home, how the booming black market exposed fears of moral decay, and how the arrival of servicemen’s families changed the tenor of the occupation. The thematic frame allows Carruthers to work through the major contribution of the book: trying to view these occupations, despite many differences, as part of a related, even unified American mission in the world. While local populations struggled to survive their devastated surroundings, the American occupiers struggled to maintain the moral ground of occupation and to figure out what a military peacetime operation on foreign soil meant. To Carruthers, occupation is a colonial move: sometimes conscious, sometimes not, but always about advancing American power in the world. By the mid-twentieth century, Americans showed a marked uneasiness with empire—that is, with an unwillingness to acknowledge that ‘spreading democracy’ might be imperialism by another name. The ‘success’ of the post-1945 occupation, argues Carruthers, was the moral ground on which the United States built its global dominance in the latter half of the twentieth century, including in justification of military interventions. Americans’ early experiences with occupation were not auspicious, as Carruthers shows in the first three chapters. Initial plans for a rationalized, apolitical, purely logistical occupation gave way in the face of a disastrous and disorganized occupation of Sicily and North Africa during the latter stages of the war. Rather than a purely apolitical task, Americans now envisioned occupation as reknitting the political life of defeated foes. But Americans—soldiers, military leaders, civilians on the home front—were as still deeply ambivalent about this new definition of occupation, an ambivalence evident in the experiences of ordinary soldiers in the initial occupations of Germany and Japan. Despite some differences, both sets of occupiers experienced the contradictions of trying to ‘democratise’ by force, the disillusionment of seeing of how easily corruption flourished, and a general uneasiness with the contradiction between their circumstances and the American mission. Contradictions only intensify in the next five chapters, as Carruthers argues for an ‘embodied’ analysis of the occupation period. Drawing on recent historiographic trends, she teases out the emotional and physical experiences of the occupying soldiers, relating their feelings to the sights and smells around them. From sanitary habits to nutritional needs to sex, it was often bodies, of soldiers, of displaced persons, of local populations, that disrupted the desired orderliness of the occupation, and which in turn were used to rank and order populations. ‘Embodiment’ also strengthens an emphasis on gender and race as categories of analysis. The narrative arc of this section, which traces the transition from conquest to an army of occupation, turns on issues of gender, from the age-old question of armies and sex to the arrival of soldiers’ families and the creation of military communities. Similarly, Carruthers takes care to highlight the experience of African-American soldiers, who had just fought a war for democracy in a segregated army, and now found racial hierarchies re-inscribed in the occupation, as well as the way American interactions with the civilian populations in Japan were complicated by American racism and reactions to physical difference. To accomplish this encyclopaedic tale of American experience, Carruthers stands on the shoulders of some historiographic giants. She can focus on the story of Americans, telling a blended story of their experience on two continents, because of the groundbreaking work accomplished by historians of the European and Asian experiences. If the details in some of these chapters seem to proliferate, it is worth remembering that Carruthers takes us down these paths because such a careful cataloguing and deep dive into the archival record has never been done before. It is the enduring strength of the national myth that she is working against: with each point she argues that ‘the greatest generation’ were human, tracking down and displaying their humanness from every possible angle. Overall, The Good Occupation succeeds at weaving together the American experience of occupation and unearthing the ground-level contradictions and failures that characterized the occupation as it unfolded. Not quite as successful are the gestures to the domestic interpretation of the occupation and the home front experience, full of its own roiling contradictions and the explosive postwar cocktail of inequality and material abundance. Yet, the home front is the ground on which the central transformation Carruthers is interested in occurs, where ‘the alchemy that transformed the base metal of lived experience after World War II into the golden stuff of national legend’ (p. 10) actually transpired. To be fair to Carruthers, the story of the home front as well as the formation of memory, which by definition was shaped and reshaped by each succeeding generation, are separate books unto themselves (some written, some not yet). If The Good Occupation backs away, in the end, from a full exploration of that story, it does not diminish the value of its rich tapestry of lived experience. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 22, 2018
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