The emotional toll of war can be as debilitating to soldiers as hunger, disease, and injury. For this reason, the companionship of women has long been seen as a salve for men in battle. Beginning in World War I, in an effort to boost soldiers’ morale and remind them of the stakes of victory, the American military formalized a recreation program that sent famous female entertainers and respectable young women overseas. The Girls Next Door provides entrée to this very human side of war.
Kara Dixon Vuic builds her narrative around the diverse women who voluntarily served in one of the nation’s most brutal work environments. From Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe to “Lassies” in France and mini-skirted coeds in Vietnam, Vuic provides a fascinating glimpse into wartime gender roles and the tensions that continue to complicate American women’s involvement in the military arena, where they now serve as equals to men in conflicts in the Middle East and as objects of their affection and longing. The recreation-program volunteers heightened the passions of troops but also domesticated everyday life on the bases. Their presence mobilized support for the war back home, while exporting American culture abroad. Carefully recruited and selected as symbols of conventional femininity, these adventurous young women saw in the theater of war a bridge between public service and private ambition.
This history of the women who talked and listened, danced and sang, adds an intimate chapter to the story of war and its ties to life in peacetime.