Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America 
by Susan L. Carruthers.
Cambridge, 327 pp., £25, 978 1 108 83077 5
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The​ American Red Cross Club, on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Denman Street, opened its doors on 11 November 1942. Its windows were festooned with the Stars and Stripes to welcome newly arrived American GIs to London. The building was soon known as Rainbow Corner, a place where US troops gambled, drank and flirted with young women. It didn’t take long for the club to get a reputation as the centre of American decadence in London, where the ‘overpaid and oversexed’ soldier could find a good time before he was shipped out to the front. The Metropolitan Police in Piccadilly and Soho commented on the impossibility of controlling prostitution in the area; campaigners for moral reform fretted over the loose behaviour of English girls who ‘gave it away for free’; and the British War Office received dozens of complaints from US commanding officers, demanding that something be done about the rocketing rates of venereal disease among their troops.

The girls who flocked to the military clubs and train stations of London in the First World War were described as suffering from ‘khaki fever’. They were said to be in danger of becoming ‘amateur prostitutes’, exchanging sex for a night of excitement or the dream of romance. During the Second World War they were known as ‘victory girls’ and ‘patriotutes’. Though laws were passed that banned them from barracks and allowed for their imprisonment if they were suspected of spreading VD, these women – and the men with whom they consorted – continued to trouble the boundary between love and sex, and between sex and war.

In her new book, Susan Carruthers sets out to explore the long and surprisingly complicated story of the ‘Dear John’ break-up letter sent by American women to US troops serving overseas. But her account offers insights into a broader entanglement, involving the militarism that shores up modern nationhood; the emotional and sexual ties that sustain and can destroy men in the military; and the women on whom male soldiers have poured hatred as well as adoration. She traces the Dear John from the First World War through to the ‘forever wars’ of Iraq and Afghanistan, though it’s the Second World War and the Vietnam War that loom largest in her account (the term ‘Dear John’ was first used in a newspaper in 1943).

During the Second World War the US government actively encouraged women to write to soldiers; letters were seen as the best way to boost morale and motivate the rank and file. Letter-writers were recruited in their thousands through mass advertising, but respondents were told they must write in a certain way, especially when it turned out that most of the women who answered the call were young and single. Even the wives and girlfriends of enlisted men were subject to instruction: keep the tone of your letters happy, they were told, however unhappy you may be. Write about day-to-day matters and be sure to tell the men about the outpouring of support for the troops at home. ‘Girls,’ one agony aunt wrote, ‘your most important job is to keep up Bill’s ego and his morale.’ In the face of the dehumanising conditions of military life, it was the job of a soldier’s sweetheart to ‘make him feel that he is still a mighty important person in this world’.

But this belief in the soothing power of the faithful and loving woman’s written word meant there was also fear about the words of women who were unfaithful and unloving. It was said that when an eagerly opened letter turned out to be a Dear John – with the news that a soldier’s marriage was over, or that his sweetheart had married someone else – it could break a man more swiftly and thoroughly than enemy fire. The spectre of getting ‘Dear Johnned’ became, as Carruthers puts it, a ‘lightning rod for soldiers’ feelings of alienation, grievance and injury’, a way to channel and identify the despair they felt. The ‘faithless women’ who sent Dear Johns and, as Carruthers writes, ‘reduced courageous men to tears’ were vilified for harming the war effort. For soldiers, the letters were further proof that while they suffered at the front, an uncaring homeland was enjoying safety and comfort, and had its own priorities.

This was felt especially strongly when the distance between home (America) and away (Europe, Vietnam, the Pacific) was so great. It was agony to wait for news and the imaginations of enlisted men ran riot between letters. Carruthers details the efforts made to minimise the distance with new technologies – for strategic purposes but also for soldiers’ wellbeing. The military was quick to innovate with telegrams, victory mail, pre-recorded tapes and the telephone – and, more recently, with video link and the internet. But all this did little to mitigate (in some cases it worsened) the psychological damage caused by the dislocation. Messages from family arrived while soldiers were surrounded by violence and death – meaning, in the words of one man who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, that an enlisted man always had ‘a circus goin’ on in [his] brain’.

Before reading Carruthers’s book, I had scarcely considered how profoundly concern about the rejected or cuckolded soldier permeates Western culture: Odysseus, worrying over Penelope’s suitors; the folk ballads that speak of sailors disguising themselves to test the fidelity of their lovers; the many songs, films and stories whose plots revolve around a stalwart soldier being driven to despair by a letter from a wife or girlfriend who had chosen not to wait. These anxieties spoke to a poetic ideal: that behind every distant fighting man there should be a woman – a mother, a wife, a lover – who kept the home fires burning.

There is little on the bookshelves of military history that touches on the emotional and sexual lives of soldiers, despite the enduring link between love, sex and war in cultural representations of soldiering. Carruthers relies for the most part on oral history and a patchy record of written recollection to get at the Dear John letters of the past. The thinness of the archive isn’t surprising: men would almost never keep such letters. Often, they would relish the process of their destruction: burning them, crumpling them, tearing them into tiny pieces. And few wartime memoirs contain reflections on the amount of money soldiers spent on buying sex, even though we know that prostitution was rife – and often officially sanctioned – at front lines and behind them. Such behaviour, which tarnished both the public image and the self-image of the strong and noble soldier, has not been included in personal or official histories of war.

It’s also difficult to find many women. There are wonderful, rich accounts of women’s auxiliary forces, of pilots and riveters, of women’s land armies, of nurses, of spies. But war is mostly understood as a man’s game. Little material survives on the countless women who sustained militarism, not by assembling aircraft or patching up bullet holes, but by providing the emotional and intimate labour that made war remotely tolerable for soldiers. Writing, loving, cleaning, flirting and screwing were all essential services. Wives, girlfriends, sex workers and even the young women who hung around the Rainbow Club in 1943 all did their part in keeping the war machine going. Of course, relationships between civilian women and soldiering men were rarely understood as war work. But the military was well aware of their necessity and didn’t hesitate to treat women as a commodity that should be available to soldiers. As General Patton put it, ‘if they don’t fuck, they don’t fight.’

Love and sex were difficult to supply and control, however. Tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, prostitution was seen as the simplest solution to the resource problem. There are parallels here with the labour of extractive capitalism. In sectors like mining, forestry and oil, an isolated and endangered male workforce is often encouraged to buy sex: in the words of one mining magnate, it helps ‘keep ’em broke, keep ’em happy, and keep ’em working.’ In ‘fly-in, fly-out’ work camps, as at a war front, prostitution has been used to sustain the exploitation of working men’s bodies. Carruthers has less to say about sex workers than she might, which means that she probably underestimates their role in the business of war.

Instead she focuses on the sex and intimacy that came with strings attached. She wants to show that whatever the dangers of commercial sex, committed relationships and marriage often proved far more troublesome for those in command. From 1935, tightening army regulations stipulated that men had to seek permission from their commanding officers to marry (though NCOs of ‘excellent character’ were exempt): wedded bliss was often seen as incompatible with disciplined soldiering. In the First World War, men were encouraged to fight for their mothers not their sweethearts, and even in 1942 the US military tried to prevent a ‘mass dash to the altar’ before soldiers were conscripted, not least because it was widely understood that marriage could prevent a man from being drafted or shipped overseas. Yet however many obstacles were placed in their way, the ‘war brides’ – a term that originally referred to American women who married enlisted men – kept coming, and by the end of the Vietnam War the US military had abandoned its policy that married men shouldn’t be drafted into active service.

‘War brides’ came to mean something else, of course, and local women who married American soldiers stationed overseas often had a hard time of it back in the US. Racism and nativism made such marriages suspect, and newly married couples faced strict immigration restrictions and miscegenation laws. Carruthers discusses the way ‘Asian exclusion’ policies affected Japanese women after the Second World War, and Korean and Japanese women in the following decades. Even when restrictions were eased, it was far from simple for an American man to bring home his Asian wife. The military and the state knew that love sustained the fighting man, but as they saw it he had a habit of falling for the wrong kind of woman.

Still worse from their point of view was the man who engaged in a romance only to have it broken off. Dear Johns left men bereft, ashamed and reckless. As a cartoon strip by Bill Mauldin put it in 1945, a soldier receiving one is ‘going to feel pretty low and he might get a little careless because of it, at a place where he can’t afford to be careless’. Dear Johns, in other words, got men killed. Most soldiers got over it, of course. Many were later grateful that a wartime fling had ended, making space for a different future. But countless others participated in what were called ‘brush-off clubs’, depending on the camaraderie of fellow soldiers to ensure that their faithless women were, in the words of the Washington Post, ‘shorn of their glamour’ and replaced by others in short order. These clubs, as Carruthers observes, saw Dear John letters as an excuse for ‘woman-hating and women-hunting’.

These bands of jilted brothers taught the troops the useful lesson that ‘the only bonds that men in uniform can truly trust are those between male comrades-at-arms.’ But all too often, Carruthers argues, Dear Johns were seen to cause ‘feelings of rejection turned dangerously inward.’ Some men went thoughtlessly into ambushes. Some volunteered for the most perilous missions. Some made themselves sitting ducks in the face of enemy fire. ‘Too distracted or despondent to obey orders,’ Carruthers writes, ‘they courted death.’ Many drank themselves into oblivion, went AWOL, took drugs. Some self-harmed, sank into depression, suffered psychosis. Dear Johns themselves were even used to explain why soldiers massacred civilians: a number of perpetrators were exonerated on these grounds. Others fired at their comrades. When these broken men returned to the US, some found it difficult to live with themselves and with others. They struggled with homelessness, unemployment and mental ill-health. Many took their own lives. A failed relationship was assumed to be the most common ‘precipitating factor’ in these deaths.

The American military invested a great deal of time and money trying to find out what made a fighting man tick and what might break his heart. Psychologists and psychiatrists suggested that the damage caused by the Dear John was part of a wider malady. The army had many terms to describe the ways in which soldiers were mind-fucked by war, and they shifted over time: nostalgia, homesickness, shell shock, soldier’s heart, psycho-neurosis, disorders of loneliness, narcissistic injury. These afflictions – blamed on treacherous women and a home front that didn’t show enough love – were convenient ways to distract attention away from the brutalising conditions inherent in modern war. If women could be held responsible for suicides, war crimes and breakdowns, then the military could evade criticism for the psychological damage done to men by war itself.

The women​ who became scapegoats for the destructive force of warmongering often paid a hefty price. Carruthers’s account made me wonder about the women who felt they couldn’t send a Dear John, despite wanting to end their relationship, because of the fear that it might cause a psychologically fragile man’s injury or death. As one distraught young woman wrote to an agony aunt during the Korean War, how could you break up with a soldier who had told you that ‘a Dear John letter would really finish me’? Sometimes the threat was to the woman herself. ‘There’s going to be more divorces and cracked heads and jaws,’ one soldier joked before he and his comrades returned from the Pacific front. ‘There’s gonna be more women killed for stepping out on their husbands than all the Japanese put together.’ It’s only recently that a strong correlation between war-wrought PTSD and domestic violence has been formally recognised – but it’s a correlation that soldiers and their families have long understood. Military masculinity can easily spill into civilian life. Carruthers reports that during one six-week period in 2002 three special forces sergeants who returned from Afghanistan to Fort Bragg, North Carolina murdered their wives.

This kind of violence isn’t only unleashed at home. In 2020, Specialist Vanessa Guillén was murdered by a fellow US Army soldier after she reported his persistent sexual harassment to largely deaf ears. In the investigation that followed, the Pentagon claimed that the case had ‘shocked our conscience and brought attention to deeper problems’ at Fort Hood, where she was posted. But these problems have always been there, and sex workers, who experience levels of violence well above the average, are often at the sharp end of them. Last year, the UK defence ministry finally agreed to co-operate with a Kenyan inquiry into the death of Agnes Wanjiru, whose remains were found in 2012 in a septic tank near a British army training base at Nanyuki, 120 miles north of Nairobi. Wanjiru was a hairdresser who had become a sex worker to support her five-month-old child; a British soldier known only as ‘Soldier X’ was suspected of killing her. The army took no action and has been accused of a cover-up. Recently leaked social media posts by British soldiers in Kenya revealed them mocking Wanjiru for selling sex and joking about the desecration of her remains. Her family is still fighting for justice.

Wives, girlfriends, female soldiers and sex workers all contribute to the unacknowledged system of intimate labour that sustains militarism. All have been victims of its most hidden form of violence. ‘Woman-hating courses through these reports,’ Carruthers writes, reflecting on the many archival files she has consulted in which commanding officers, politicians and ordinary soldiers alike have branded ‘unrespectable’ women as dangerous and unfaithful women as traitors. General Patton felt that the authors of Dear John letters ‘should be shot’, while another infantryman called them a ‘letter-writing Fifth Column’. Military officials and doctors regularly (if quietly) campaigned to have sex workers rounded up, medically inspected and thrown into army-approved brothels. Carruthers asks whether martial masculinity can ever dispense with misogyny. History suggests not. As long as there is war, it seems that women will continue to bear the pressure, do the work and pay a heavy price.

But men will pay, too. Among the many examples Carruthers provides is the account of Helen Hegelheimer, an air steward who helped fly newly drafted soldiers out to, and home from, Vietnam. The men, more willing to show their vulnerability to a woman, pressed letters to their girlfriends into her hands. Hegelheimer said that after a while she could hardly bear to look at the words, written by men who, as Carruthers points out, were ‘desperate for confirmation that they were, or would be, loved’.

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Vol. 44 No. 5 · 10 March 2022

Julia Laite writes about the effects of ‘Dear John’ letters on soldiers’ mental health, and the consequences for the women who wrote them (LRB, 10 February). Both my parents were in the military during the Second World War. My mother joined the US navy in 1943 and became a gunnery instructor. My father was British, conscripted in 1939 for the duration. He was in the Royal Air Force for six years, becoming a flight sergeant and pilot. They met when my father was on a training mission on a US navy airbase in Pensacola, Florida, and were married wearing their dress uniforms in New York in 1944. They were 22 years old.

My father was subsequently transferred back to the European theatre, and then, after the war, to India. He was gone for eighteen months. Before he left, my mother got pregnant with me. She was given an honourable discharge and went home to her mother’s small ranch in Southern California. During their separation, my parents wrote letters back and forth almost every day. Neither of them ever mentioned where he was. Her letters were filled with enthusiasm and buck-up cheer, as in the ads she may have seen in Life magazine at that time.

I was born in October 1945. My father wasn’t demobilised until I was nearly a year old. He was, if not shell-shocked, certainly numbed and slightly crazy from the war. He went ‘home’ to my mother and me, a stranger in a strange land. By the time he got to the San Fernando Valley, I was a wilful toddler. When my grandmother put me in his arms, he took hold of me awkwardly, reluctantly, as I shrieked, squirmed and shat. Then he handed me back. My grandmother never forgave him. Pretty soon, she kicked all three of us out of her house – the pilot, my mother and me. Poor child-mother and child-father and their demanding, wiggly baby-child, alone in orange grove, dirt-road Reseda. All they had, my parents, aside from me, were their military uniforms and arm patches, citizen soldiers now, both of them.

My point in telling this story is to register another form of mental stress and potentially deep psychological damage done to some Second World War vets who returned, physically well but emotionally damaged, and sadly distant from babies they had never had a chance to bond with. I call it secondary familial PTSD. I observed it as I grew up, as did many of my friends. They had the same framed photographs on top of their TVs: their parents’ weddings, the men in uniform.

Mary Carter
Placitas, New Mexico

‘Few wartime memoirs contain reflections on the amount of money soldiers spent on buying sex,’ Julia Laite writes, further claiming that behaviour likely to tarnish the image of the fighting man ‘has not been included in personal or official histories of war’. A corrective is suggested by the existence of the three-volume Sexual History of the World War by Magnus Hirschfeld, published by Panurge in 1937, or the single-volume study Sexual Life During the World War by H.C. Fischer and Dr E.X. Dubois, published by Francis Aldor, also in 1937. A selection of chapter headings from these titles barely begins to scratch the surface of a deep and much documented seam of military lore: ‘Love & Drugs’; ‘Regulation of Army Brothels’; ‘Transvestism’; ‘War Wives & Immorality’; ‘Eroticism of Nurses’; ‘Homosexuality’; ‘Erotic Life in Prison Camps’; ‘Lust in the Conquered Areas’; ‘War Eunuchs’.

Chris Moore
Winfrith Newburgh, Dorset

Vol. 44 No. 6 · 24 March 2022

Chris Moore refers to two sexual histories of the Great War from 1937 (Letters, 10 March). Earlier, in 1920, Charles White and William Herbert Brown of the RAMC published An Atlas of the Primary and Cutaneous Lesions of Acquired Syphilis in the Male, based on their experience of 19,000 cases at the Rochester Row Military Hospital. Brown was a photography enthusiast, though the copious illustrations of syphilitic and other venereal afflictions are credited to Corporal H. Lee. Most of the photographs are stereoscopic pairs, and only those investing 7s 6d in adjustable periscopic lenses could gain a full appreciation of the depth of luetic ulceration, or the florid vegetations of genital condylomata. No mention is made of the means by which the lesions were acquired, nor of sexual partners of either gender.

Colin Munro

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