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Page 37
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Dear John

By Edward Hagerty (reviewer)

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Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America
by Susan L. Carruther
(Cambridge University Press, 2022)

Given the title of this book one might suspect at first glance that it contains lurid tales of romance gone wrong or gloating anecdotes describing soldiers' revenge on unfaithful women. In less adept hands the book might easily have gone further in that salacious direction, and though there are of necessity plenty of examples provided to support her points, Susan Carruthers has taken a more scholarly approach that adds much to our understanding of the impact of "Dear John" letters on American military personnel from World War II through Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom. The subtitle is equally important in identifying the scope of the book. Carruthers discusses how military leaders and some influential civilian supporters and commentators have shaped policies related to soldiers' personal relationships with significant others and, perhaps more importantly, molded the generalized perceptions of the women who authored "Dear John" letters. While the many detrimental effects of such letters are examined carefully and with scholarly care, the underlying message that frequently shows through in that analysis is that women, by and large, have been getting an unjustified bad rap. Though the impact of receiving a breakup letter can and likely does encompass many of the behaviors she identifies, there is much support for the underlying assertion that casting blame on the female authors of those letters is not universally warranted. No matter the truth of that conclusion, try telling it to a jilted John in a combat zone. Reactions to such emotional jolts almost universally elicited predictable negative consequences. I suspect that some readers have been there and could have contributed some stimulating comments to this discussion, but rather than focus on why women wrote "Dear John" letters, Carruthers focuses instead on "why other people have had so much to say about the severance of romantic ties between men and women in wartime" (18).

To address the issues of blame or causation for the breakdown of relationships, or to examine means to prevent or alleviate the emotional consequences of those failed connections, Carruthers delved deeply into a vast amount of literature ranging from military policy documents and Red Cross or chaplain and psychiatric records to popular literature such as film, novels, and songs. In addition, a trove of primary sources in the form of letters and other personal papers was consulted, along with the profusion of guidance that filled the pages of Women's magazines and poured forth from newspaper advice columnists. Of primary importance to her research, however, were recorded oral histories from veterans, which illustrated that the widespread "Dear John" phenomenon respected no race, rank, or branch of service.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book concerns how the services early on attempted to regulate soldiers' relationships so that they provided the proper mix of emotional, sexual, and practical support without jeopardizing the men's martial capabilities. Army regulations of the mid to late 1930s discouraged marriage among most enlisted personnel by mandating that regimental commanders give their approval, and by providing for punishments for failure to gain that approval prior to a marriage. World War II began to chip away at some of the Army's hesitation, first when GIs began to father children and marry British women, and later when others wed Germans during the occupation. In the Pacific, it took a special presidential decree to temporarily lift a ban on Asian immigration before marriages to Japanese women were permitted. The requirement to obtain a commander's approval for marriage, however, remained in place until the 1980s, and as early as 1965, chaplains in Vietnam viewed marriages to "oriental war brides" as a "foremost problem" (44).

Policies in Vietnam illustrate the military's ineptitude in recognizing and addressing a problem of its own design. Draftees at first were nearly all single young men, yet these teenaged GIs were unjustly criticized for forming romantic relationships with Asian women. A secondary effect of an initial reluctance to draft married men led to a number of potential draftees marrying quickly to avoid being called up. President Johnson changed that policy in August 1965, with only married men with children remaining deferred. By 1970 even married fathers became subject to the draft. One can easily imagine that the large number of early marriages among young couples that took place before mature, stable relationships could take root led to a dramatic rise in the divorce rate. Undoubtedly some of those marriages crumbled under the stress of separation once married men were called to serve.

The 1980s saw a marked change in the Pentagon's attitudes towards marriage among its personnel. Only the Marines bucked the new shift to a more family-friendly environment. Moreover, the policy of discharging pregnant female service members had ended by 1975, opening the door to a wider acceptance of the concept of a military "family." The changes resulted in many challenges to the services. Marriages continued to fail at alarming rates (even more so among female personnel), and programs designed to strengthen the stability of military families were targeted mostly at the largest population—the wives of male service members. As Carruthers notes, the military services are still struggling with their angst and ambivalence about marriages, choosing to focus first on "wives as the disorderly force to be managed" (53). Like the proverbial Sword of Damocles, wives remain recognized both as a source of support as well as a prime source of a soldier's potential failure.

While receiving mail can boost a soldier's morale, the military has sought to impose policies governing even the most innocuous communication, and in that effort they were supported by the Red Cross and popular opinion. In 1942, for example, the War Department actively discouraged unknown women from writing to soldiers. Recipients of unsolicited letters were prohibited from replying to the writers. On the surface, reasons for discouraging such relationships concerned the potential distraction from duty it caused the soldier, and the potential damage to a young woman's reputation. More practically, it added to the burdens of an already struggling mail system. The postal service handled 28 billion pieces of mail in 1940, for example, and by 1945 the number had jumped to nearly 38 billion. Nonetheless, GIs almost universally ignored the proscription against correspondence and sought to exchange letters with any willing female. By the time of the Korean War, advertisements from GIs seeking correspondents appeared regularly in newspaper personals sections. During the Vietnam War, a concerted effort was made to ensure no soldier went without mail. A California woman, Maynard "Mom" Jenkins, headed "Operation Mail Call," a network of about 60,000 letter writers. While not all were young women seeking to correspond with potential mates, Jenkins personally attended the weddings of nine couples who were put in touch through her network.

Even correspondence between couples whose relationship would have met with the military's approval was subject to guidance influenced by the services and by a host of self-help busybodies. Women in the 1940s, it was thought, required coaching not only on the lost art of letter writing, but on what was appropriate to share with soldiers and what was not. Books such as The Infantry Journal's Handbook for Army Wives and Mothers provided such guidance during World War II. The main goal of letter writing, such works presumed, was to build soldiers' morale. "Elevation of male self-esteem was a vital art to master," (71) Carruthers asserts. Women's needs for mutually satisfying intimacy played no role in the guidance. Meanwhile, servicemen overseas were plagued by fears of infidelity, which led many to rationalize their own sexual betrayals. Perhaps adding to the soldiers' fears was the growing number of "Dear John" letters received by other men in their unit. The term "Dear John" appeared and took root in the American vernacular as a result of a New York Times Sunday magazine story that coined the term in the fall of 1943. Media coverage of the problems caused by those letters led to much debate. Women who worried about how to convey an alteration in their feelings for a soldier were advised to conceal their change of heart. Their partner's vulnerability to emotional injury was considered too great a risk not to engage in a charade designed to conceal women's changed attachment. Remarkably, despite the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s, young women in the Vietnam Era received precisely the same advice their parents had twenty years earlier. Some GIs in Vietnam disagreed with the stock recommendation, preferring to know the truth outright rather than puzzling over a decreased number of letters or obvious changes in a women's tone. Others considered a woman cowardly in waiting for the man's deployment before breaking up with him, but one universally despised type of letter was the "I thought you should know" sort that came from a concerned friend or relative disclosing the behavior of the soldier's wife or girlfriend. In all wars, some men harbored anger and resentment against women or the men who stole their affections. Sometimes those emotions led to violence and even murder. Eventually, lawyers even developed a "Dear John" defense in some of those lethal cases. Luckily those attorneys never had to face George Patton as a witness. During World War II the controversial and outspoken general told journalists that unfaithful women at home ought to be shot as traitors. The condemnation of such unfaithfulness, even if in less drastic terms, continues to this day.

Actual reactions to "Dear John" letters were typically more restrained. In World War II men often found relief by forming "Brush Off Clubs" in which jilted soldiers playfully bemoaned their status while scheming retaliation and ways to quickly find a replacement for a lost love. Soldiers also frequently shared their letters as a means to court sympathy and denigrate the sender. The shared stories of loss embraced camaraderie and brotherly bonds that exceed the norms of romantic love, yet also required "unreliable women as their foil" (131). Carruthers, however, misses an opportunity to examine how such behavior may have been used as a successful coping mechanism. The chance to explore the real pain caused by many breakups is passed over there but surfaces later in another section of the book.

A chapter about waiting wives is devoted primarily to a discussion of spouses of Vietnam Era prisoners of war. Communications between POWs and their families were tightly controlled and restricted. The Department of Defense scrutinized all outgoing letters, which were limited to only six lines of text, as were POW letters home that were closely inspected by the North Vietnamese. Some wives formed POW activist groups that were surprisingly not anti-war but instead staunchly hawkish. They not only lobbied for a complete accounting of all POW and missing personnel in Vietnam, one group went so far as to support protracted hostilities in order to tie American withdrawal to the swift repatriation of POWs. One conservative woman even divorced her husband after he made anti-war statements in captivity. Others struggled to maintain their loyalty to husbands held captive as a result of participation in an increasingly unpopular war that chipped away at the kind of social support networks that had sustained women of their mothers' generation. In the end, Vietnam Era "Dear John" letters became emblematic of a troubled society with feelings of "abandonment, betrayal, [and] rejection" (178).

Letters eventually evolved over time due to technology, first being supplemented during the Vietnam War by taped voice recordings. While taped messages seem not to have been much utilized for "Dear John" purposes, the tantalizing prospect was the subject of a M*A*S*H episode televised in 1973, reinforcing already widely held beliefs about women's ill treatment of their men in Vietnam. In fact, one psychiatrist even introduced a psychopathology termed the "Dear John Syndrome" in 1969, which pertained to an increasingly hostile and hate-fueled tone of break-up letters from women, some of whom he alleged even sent along photos of themselves in compromising positions with their new love interests.

More frequent communication as a result of internet access in modern conflicts has been perceived either as a negative or as a mixed blessing at best. The ease of access places unrealistic expectations on deployed soldiers, sometimes leading to issues revolving around what psychologists have termed "incomplete separation" (106). Deployed personnel are physically separated and yet are expected to remain an integral part of home life. Constant involvement with spouse or family while remaining focused on the deployed mission "requires prodigious feats of emotional discipline" (107).

Soldiers, moreover, still evince some preference for letters simply because of their portability and tangibility, not to mention their private nature in contrast to potentially monitored and censored electronic communications. Some even attribute talismanic properties to letters carried into danger, though that sentiment has largely fallen out of favor.

The book's last two chapters explore the ideas of emotional injury and suicide. After World War II the term "narcissistic injury" came into vogue in psychiatric literature and the term described an unhealthy self-regard rather than regret over lost love as being responsible for adverse reactions to "Dear John" missives. "Narcissists," asserted this diagnosis, "recoiled from blunt trauma to the ego," rather than to the heart (192). During the Vietnam Era, psychiatrists added "disorders of loneliness" as a diagnosis. Distinct from homesickness, this condition was said to have led to drug and alcohol-fueled attempts to escape reality, all of which were exacerbated by receipt of a "Dear John" letter by youthful GIs unable to adapt or cope with their situation. With twelve-month rotations, many men in Vietnam viewed their tour of duty as little more than a contest to survive. Genuine friendships, military psychiatrists thought, seldom blossomed among service members, and in the context of an emotionally hazardous environment a "powerful pseudo intimacy" (194) rather than close bonds emerged. Many men never kept in touch with anyone from their units once they returned home, and while this was not universally true of course, it does raise questions about the "stark contrast to the way in which many Vietnam veterans have romanticized the transcendent love that bound men together in combat and thereafter" (194). Carruthers throws out that bomb without further comment, and while such speculation is not technically within the scope of the book's theme, it nevertheless bears further exploration. Though never having served in direct combat, it is reasonably simple to speculate about the many logical reasons why that might have been true in Vietnam, while readers who did serve in combat can undoubtedly dispute or effortlessly rationalize why that was or was not the case for them.

Though GIs throughout history have sometimes taken their own lives for a variety of reasons, it is a relatively recent phenomenon that the services have undertaken any systematic analysis of the issue, and such detail begins to shed some light on causation and the impact of "Dear John" communications. In Vietnam, MACV tracked 379 suicides. It was thought at the time that broken romantic ties led to a significant number of those deaths. By 2008 the annual rate of US Army suicides at 20.2 per 100,000 exceeded that of the US civilian population. More soldiers died by their own hands that year than by enemy action. Army-wide suicides reached a new high of 323 in 2012. Studies conducted across DoD largely concluded that there was little correlation between deployments and suicides, leading to closer scrutiny of interpersonal relationships as a possible cause. It soon became an accepted rationale that failed relationships played a significant role in suicides, though Carruthers brings to light some of the methodological flaws leading to those conclusions. It was, she contends, simpler for the military to blame failed relationships than to look more deeply at the real impact of deployments during the nation's longest war. Military programs designed to strengthen family relationships still focus on the female spouse's role in ensuring their soldier husband's stable mental health, but an approach based on mutual fulfillment has evolved. Nonetheless it remained primarily the wife's job to undertake the lion's share of the emotional work needed to provide stability. Yet break-ups remain prevalent among military couples, and many commanders persist on focusing on that aspect in the wake of suicides rather than examining the bigger picture of what events caused the disintegration of a relationship. Women, Carruthers continues to maintain, still bear the brunt of the blame, often with no consideration of how the man's actions might have contributed to failure. Instead, the "Dear John" letter is all that remains to leave "female fingerprints on the figurative smoking gun" (237).

Carruthers ends with an incisive conclusion summarizing her main points and illustrating that "seven decades of Jody calls and Dear John stories suggest that men in uniform have continued to endow the specter of female disloyalty with potent integrative properties" (247), while the services have found it convenient to use "Dear John" tales as justification that deflects from other possible causes of a GI's actions. All of that leads Carruthers to bemoan the fact that the traditional "Dear John" story ignores the voices of the women who wrote them and ultimately leads to the assertion that women, not warfare, constitute the prime offender in failed relationships.

One might ask why such a close examination of "Love and Loyalty" is relevant, but given today's rate of broken relationships and suicides, it is clearly evident that DoD must reexamine its approach to how it treats the military "family" and the myriad issues that arise from family life. Moreover, it is incumbent upon good military leaders to be educated and attuned to the kinds of issues that lead to family dysfunction and suicides. More importantly, an understanding of the conditions that lead people to take desperate measures must also lead to knowledgeable and effective means of intervention from peer level through leadership level, and lastly at the institutional level. The "Brush-off Clubs" of the 1940s were a lighthearted façade, but many a truth is said in jest. A broken heart and all the reasons that lead to it are no joking matter. Carruthers' scholarly treatment of the subject challenges us to think carefully about being so cavalier about such a serious issue. The book is well worth reading on that account. It will be interesting to see if subsequent research can delve more deeply into the letter writers' side of the story.

Ed Hagerty is a former USAF member and reserve officer who served with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). He received a doctorate in History from Temple University. He is the book review editor for the Journal of Strategic Security.

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