Kara Dixon Vuic. The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019. Illustrations. viii + 382 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-98638-1.
Reviewed by Lisa Beckenbaugh (Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (June, 2020)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
When most people think of entertaining US troops overseas in wartime, images of Bob Hope on stage with a host of celebrities immediately come to mind. Little known and little remembered are the thousands of women who served day in and day out providing entertainment and recreation for millions of deployed troops. Kara Dixon Vuic traces the story of these women from their service in World War I through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The vast majority of these women were not celebrities, just all-American girls. These Red Cross Donut Dollies, YMCA girls, Salvation Army Lassies, USO performers, and Special Service hostesses performed essential wartime roles in less than ideal situations. Enlisted to be symbols of the home front, basically surrogate mothers, sisters, wives, and sweethearts, yet required to retain their sex appeal, these women walked a fine line in places where they were always vastly outnumbered by men. Navigating issues of gender roles, class, race, sexuality, relationships, sexual harassment, and women’s empowerment, these women strived to provide support and comfort to millions of men in uniform. Building her narrative around the young women from across the United States, Vuic makes excellent use of the women’s personal letters, memoirs, and other types of correspondence written before, during, and after war. Readers see how the women were viewed by the leaders of the various service organizations and the military leadership through official memoranda, policies, and personal correspondence.
During World War I, many women wanted to serve in greater roles than just rolling bandages for the Red Cross. So when the YMCA started accepting women into its overseas canteen program many young ladies jumped at the chance to “have a small part in this great conflict” (p. 8). The idea behind sending “wholesome attractive women” to war zones was to use them as a moralizing influence on soldiers, seen as “necessary to combat vice” (p. 19). Vuic points out that the American hostesses exported “white, middle-class notions of family, home, and respectability” to be the guardians of the soldier’s morality while overseas, keeping them away from predatory French women (p. 28). These young hostesses were asked to interact with men in ways that would never have been condoned outside of wartime. For many of the upper- and middle-class white women staffing the canteens, socializing with men from different races and economic classes was a a culture shock.
Attitudes changed by the time the United States entered World War II and the military argued that macho American military men needed sex. Prostitution was accepted and even regulated in many areas. With this change, the role of American women serving overseas also changed. Women were no longer associated with motherhood; they were far more sexualized. Physically attractive women with an outgoing personality were essential to good soldiering by boosting men’s heterosexual desires, which might be threatened in an all-male military camp. The hostesses were in a precarious sexual position, asked to be an object of men’s desires but making sure they stayed out of touch of anyone intent on acting on those urges. Women were routinely put in situations considered hazardous enough to require armed guards for their protection from the same men they endeavored to serve. Racial issues were again a problem with many white women afraid to interact with black men for fear of what white men would think or do. In contrast, black hostesses, always in short supply, were obligated to serve as dance partners for both white and black soldiers. The hostess who served overseas found a new independence, and, like the men who served, their experiences changed them, challenging their return to “polite” society.
After the war, women continued to serve in Europe and Asia as symbols of the “white, middle-class nuclear family” or “the ultimate safeguards against the dangers and evils and communism” (p. 140). According to Vuic, hostesses not only had to keep men out of trouble but also had to play a key part in “developing democratic character among young citizen-soldiers” (p. 145). By the time of the Korean War, sexual morality in the services returned to the World War I view of keeping young soldiers clean to prepare them to be fathers and upstanding community members. Therefore, a large part of hostesses’ roles was keeping soldiers away from undesirable local women, largely prostitutes. Hostesses and performers struggled to provide wholesome entertainment that made the men good democratic citizens while still giving GIs the sexually charged entertainment they desired.
The value of the work overseas was challenged during the Vietnam War. It was a struggle to find women hostesses during the Korean War, as more opportunities opened up for women at home, but, as Vuic shows, it was an even greater challenge during the more contentious conflict in Vietnam. This was the first war zone that had no travel restrictions, so many independent “entertainment” operations were established in the country. These unaffiliated operations, along with feminism, civil rights, and the anti-war movement, challenged the ability of the official hostess organizations to uphold “traditional images of women offered in earlier wars” (p. 188). Officials tried hard to keep GIs on base and away from a booming and often military-regulated prostitution industry. Hostesses were struggling to walk a line between the girl next door and Playboy images. For some soldiers this did more harm than good, promising men in uniform all-American sexuality that they could look at but could not touch. Sometimes this boiled over into more than just instances of sexual harassment and stalking. While the women learned to live with it, many officers dismissed inappropriate behavior as “boys will be boys” or inevitable under the circumstances (p. 227). When men did cross the line into more serious offenses, such as rape, women often did not report it as they did not trust military leadership to do anything about it.
As Vuic points out, things changed when the hostesses had to serve an all-volunteer force. Military base life in the 1980s was much different from earlier decades. In some locations, like South Korea, you still had a population of mostly single soldiers, but in other places, like Germany, you had mostly families. The hostesses were no longer needed in these locations to provide that reminder of home. Here they broadened their focus on more family-friendly recreation and entertainment. Quality of life issues now became more important and family programming became a central focus. The Gulf War and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan created special circumstances, and there were more than a few limitations on what kind of entertainment Americans could bring with them. Not only that, but the makeup of the fighting forces changed. No longer were these all young male single soldiers but also reservists in their thirties and forties, women, and oftentimes soldiers with families at home. Many military performers struggled to adapt to the changing audience and still believed military entertainment had to cater to the basest of sexual innuendo and risqué humor. This hypersexualized military entertainment seems at odds with a military that increasingly relies on servicewomen and faces problems with sexual harassment and assault.
The book is very well researched and does an excellent job of conveying the richness and complexity not only of the women’s experience but also of the wartime environment in which they served. Going forward, overseas wartime military entertainment will have to take into account the diversification of the troops. This book is a must read for everyone interested in the wartime experiences of both men and women.
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Lisa Beckenbaugh. Review of Vuic, Kara Dixon, The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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