Ever since the publication of John Keegan’s The Face of Battle in 1976, the field of military history has expanded from conventional “guns and drums” studies to include examinations of “war and society”. This latter approach argues that wars and military institutions reflect the mores of societies that fight them and vice versa. Some of the most exciting scholarship has focused on gender and sexuality. Kara Dixon Vuic’s The Girls Next Door stands as an example.
Vuic looks at cultural interactions between the masculine US military establishment and the feminine entertainers working for the military or in non-profit organisations. She delves into every conflict from the First World War to the Global War on Terror. Ostensibly, attractive American women with broad smiles served food to troops, danced with them at officers’ clubs and sang songs on stages. In so doing, Vuic shows that they became “surrogate mothers, sisters, and sweethearts” to the men in uniform. The women offered them “a touch of home”, thereby softening the otherwise brutal realities on the front lines.
At a deeper level, however, the Salvation Army Lassies, Red Cross Donut Dollies and female USO (United Service Organization) dancers and singers embodied the wholesome “girls next door” from the home front that the servicemen defended and hoped to return to when the fighting ended. These “girls” needed to exemplify carefully constructed Caucasian, Protestant, middle-class values that would ideally help tame even the roughest men. Although female entertainers were expected to be flirtatious, they could not engage in promiscuous behaviour or tolerate strong sexual advances. In such ways, the US military and allied organisations intentionally reinforced masculine guardian and feminine nurturer as mutually supportive gender roles.
Although the female entertainers followed literal and cultural scripts, Vuic does not portray them merely as conduits for US gender divisions and patriotic wartime fervour. Quite the contrary, they asserted agency to create meanings for themselves that may not have coincided with the symbolic roles they were expected to perform. In the First World War, for example, such entertainers needed to present themselves as paragons of feminine virtue in order to lure US servicemen away from the sexual temptations of European women. The symbolism changed during the Vietnam War as the sensuality of Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch encouraged the men’s commitment to the war effort, while also distracting them from the purported moral and health dangers of sexual relationships with Asian women. More recently, during the Global War on Terror, women’s roles as entertainers have coalesced around the notion of morale, not only for service personnel but for their entire families.
Vuic is at her best when using stories about women to illustrate her deeper analysis. Each chapter opens with a wartime vignette about a woman in her own words, from either a memoir or an oral history. Then Vuic explains how the woman saw herself in that context and what her experiences tell us about broader gender relations in the given conflict. Such stories give the women voices and help readers appreciate history beyond combat operations.
David Ulbrich directs the graduate military history programme at Norwich University in Vermont and is co-author with Bobby Wintermute of Race and Gender in Modern Western Warfare (2019).
The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines
By Kara Dixon Vuic
Harvard University Press 392pp, £21.95
Published 22 February 2019