The Girls Next Door by Kara Dixon Vuic

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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.

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Vietnam War Donut Dollies

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

Courageous Women of the Vietnam War by Kathryn J. Atwood

In Courageous Women of the Vietnam War: Medics, Journalists, Survivors, and More (Chicago Review Press, 240 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle), Kathryn Atwood examines the American War (as the Vietnamese call it) and the Vietnam War (as Americans know it) from the perspectives of women from both sides—including the French who started it.

In this young adult book Atwood presents the war through the eyes of a French Army nurse captured by the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu; a South Vietnamese revolutionary inspired by Ho Chi Minh; Joan Baez trapped in Hanoi during the Operation Linebacker II bombing; and eleven other vignettes.

Atwood’s accounts blend the women’s actions into an overall picture of the war. Therefore, the book covers material familiar to students of the war, but it also serves as a primer for younger readers. I was familiar with the lives of only four of the women. At the end of each chapter, Atwood lists two or three books suitable for further study on the topic she just covered.

K.J. Atwood

The book’s story line begins with the Viet Minh Revolution led by Ho Chi Minh, and progresses through the Ngo Dinh Diem Civil War and the machinations of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

In her book Atwood gives life to people who otherwise might be forgotten. For the most part, without wielding weapons, the women featured in the book faced dangers equal to those faced by many men who saw combat.

Atwood praises the women for their contributions to their countries. She writes about more American women than Vietnamese.

She is the author of three previous YA books about heroic women who served in World Wars I and II. “Young people might not believe they like history,” she says, “but [they] might be enticed toward interest in a particular historical woman if the narrative is compelling.”

In Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, Kathryn Atwood makes the personalities tick for readers of any age.

Her website is kathrynatwood.com

—Henry Zeybel