Most works of history can be placed in one of two categories: they either provide context to a specific era or topic or they present an argument based on a historic question. Kara Dixon Vuic’s The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines (Harvard University Press, 392 pp., $29.95) is in the former category. The book examines—and provides a comprehensive history of—the topic of women’s work in military entertainment from World War I through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The book is a largely anecdotal and accessible history. Its ninety pages of end notes evince its comprehensive research. Vuic is a rofessor of War, Conflict, and Society in Twentieth-Century America at Texas Christian University and the author of the award-winning Officer, Nurse, Woman: The Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War.
During the first two world wars and through the Korean War, prominent agencies including the YMCA, Salvation Army, Red Cross, and USO recruited college-educated, attractive, adventurous, and “middle-American wholesome” female volunteers. In coordination with the military, the women were deployed overseas to manage canteens, play games, and provide a familial reminder to bolster morale and commitment. The women were symbols of domestic Americana.
During the Cold War—and particularly during the Vietnam War—the Army’s Special Services was the leading provider of these programs, most notably through the Red Cross’ Donut Dolly program. With the advent of the all-volunteer force after the Vietnam War as more women joined the armed forces through the 1980s, the programs appropriately shifted to serve families.
In documenting the history of women in military entertainment, Vuic also traces “the evolution of wartime gender ideologies and connects women’s work for the military to “their changing place in the nation.” This is underscored in the war in Vietnam, where the splintering of American culture was particularly evident.
In Vietnam, the intrinsic tension in the role of the women between conventional purity and sexual desire was exposed. The military used both the wholesomeness of the Donut Dollies and provocative USO shows to try to maintain esprit de corps. The title of the book and the cover photograph of a Donut Dolly in Da Nang illustrate the popular Vietnam War-era Playboy image of the “Girl Next Door” that fused innocence with sexuality.
The most poignant parts of the book are the stories of the women who consistently worked within the confines of their rigid roles to create new, more-meaningful aspects of their service. Though technically both provided “entertainment,” it seems unfair to group the Donut Dollies, who lived in country and had personal relationships with troops, with the touring USO performers.
The epilogue is disappointing as it includes a polemic featuring the scandal that forced Al Franken’s resignation from the U.S. Senate. But this is a minor quibble in a book that successfully examines a specific theme and provides an excellent reference on the historic role of civilian women who worked with the troops in America’s 20th and 21st century wars.
—Daniel R. Hart