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A Very Different Book About Vietnam
By Ed White (reviewer)
Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men's Adventure Magazines
by Gregory A. Daddis
(Cambridge University Press, 2020)
This military historian has written a book like no other about the cultural influences during the Vietnam War: Pulp adventure magazines. Do names like: Male; American Manhood; Battle Cry; Man's World; Man's Action; For Men Only; True Men; Man's Illustrated; ring a bell when you were in Vietnam?
Gregory Daddis retired from the Army as a Colonel five years ago after serving in Operation Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. He has written three books on Vietnam: Westmoreland's War; No Sure Victory; and Withdrawal. In an interview with his publisher, Daddis admitted that he wanted to explore another area other than military strategy. And boy did he!
The historian started his own research by reflecting on the consequences and impact of popular culture on American soldiers. His context centered on the fears created around international communism and postwar consumer culture in the United States. This cultural context created a publishing empire that was eager to depict the ideal man as both heroic warrior and sexual conqueror. Yep. This theme became the publication's surface storyline. As the cold war developed during the 1950's and 1960's so did the adventure magazines. Stories developed on the theme of militarized masculinity and sexual conquest. At the same time feminism created anxieties among working class males that made them feel castrated in relation to females. Stay with me on this.
Wiliam Whyte's Organizational Man and Arthur Miller's Willy Lohman fanned male anxieties. Magazines from Cosmopolitan, Playboy, to Man's Action played up the idea that wives dominated in a marriage. The pulps catered to the white male. Blacks, Latinos, Asian, and Native Americans were not considered real or full men. The storylines portrayed working-class men as unable to take full advantage of the postwar consumer culture. And then came the Vietnam War…
Historian Gregory Daddis researched these adventure magazines. He discovered a warehouse in Tampa, Florida containing a mother lode of back issues. I also researched adventure magazines in my local comic retail store. The store owner told me: "No we do not carry them, but keep checking back someone might bring them in." After the Vietnam war pulp adventure magazines went out of favor and out of business. With money from other research projects, Gregory Daddis purchased the lot and began his research. Before going into the weeds let me say that Daddis holds the highest place for historical research. I would even go so far as to say that his new book is an example of TMI—"too much information." The book is 237 pages, together with lots of visuals and with an additional 100 pages in footnotes. But, reader, these are not your ordinary footnotes. Generally speaking, when you see a number and refer to the back of the book you find one source. This is not the case with Gregory Daddis. He provides as many as five sources for one comment. I kid you not. This book must be one of the most researched books on the subject, bar none. Daddis is a true and thorough scholar. We are talking about historical research into adventure magazines, as well as the larger picture of cultural relationships of the warrior and sexual conquest. I applaud him handily for reading these thousands of stories.
There are five actual chapters with an extensive Introduction and a Conclusion. In the book Daddis develops the history of World War II veterans coming from the "Good War" and the Korean War. As the story line went Vietnam veterans wanted to be the heroes fighting the Nazis and winning. The veterans of World War II raised their sons to value service in the military uniform. The Korean veterans began an era of questioning whether there is a limit to US power overseas. The pulps encouraged the idea of becoming a man as a result of going to war. Good triumphs over evil. Stories of medal winning soldiers and Marines pervaded the magazines. Exploits of Medal of Honor bravery stories flooded the pages from both wars. Along with this there were narratives of racial hatred of Asians, particularly the Japanese in the Pacific, and Korean communists. The adventure magazines always showed the strong man conquering all along with female conquest as a reward of his military might.
In all of these magazines the cover illustration tells it all. "A picture is a thousand words": Women scantily dressed, exploited, tortured, and then rescued by the American fighting man. Stories were made up to emphasize that heroism was part of being a man and that the reward was sexual conquest. At the same time women were also represented in some of the magazines as strong, devious, but receptive, submissive to the warrior. In the book the author elaborated on various women spies, Oriental seductresses, exotic and erotic Asian women, etc. I think you get the picture. The magazine's story line does not change much when soldiers get to Vietnam, though the stories create the image that Vietnamese women are expendable.
In 1967 in the Vietnam Post Exchange (PX) 13 of the top 20 best-selling magazines were men's adventure magazines. Not surprising Playboy topped the list. The annual magazine sales total was $12 million in the Post Exchanges in Vietnam. This stuff sold well. However, after 1975 the overall world-wide sales dropped. The pulp publishers could not sustain the story line any longer.
According to Gregory Daddis reading these magazines in Vietnam did not lead to rapes of Vietnamese women, but he wrote that crimes occurred and were not taken seriously. This treatment was considered part of the culture of the time. As recent reports in the military indicate sexual harassment is alive and well. It continues to not be taken very seriously.
In an interview, the author related that serious research attention must be paid to the underlying issues of gender and power. In the past men's adventure magazines ,which catered to working class males, were not considered worthy of research by serious historians. At long last Gregory Daddis has certainly changed that whole dynamic.
Ed White is a Marine Vietnam Combat vet with memberships in VVAW, VFP and VVA. He has taught courses on the Vietnam War at Triton college in Illinois.