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Performance Anxiety: How Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines Shaped Soldiers’ (Mis)Understandings of the Vietnam War (Review)

“ONCE MORE UNTO THE breach, dear friends, once more,” cries Shakespeare’s King Henry V, as he rallies his troops for another assault on the city of Harfleur. It is an important part of the military mythology that still clings to Henry, an example of a fearless, “lead from the front” style of combat leadership. Less remembered, however, is the result of Henry’s attack. It fails.

Henry’s eventual victory is rhetorical, not martial. Harfleur surrenders, not to noble soldiers, but to the English king’s threats of rape and pillage. Henry conquers France and marries Catherine, the daughter of the French king, as part of the settlement to end the war.

That we remember the physical courage before Harfleur and forget the threats of sexual violence suggests a good deal about how we like to think of our war heroes. Laurence Olivier, for example, followed a 350-year performance tradition and kept the courage but cut the perverse bluster in his 1944 film version of Henry V. But the stakes of forgetting are unbelievably high. It’s a problem Gregory Daddis considers in Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines, which examines some of midcentury America’s engagement with the dark content Olivier was too reluctant to utter.

Daddis’s expansive survey of the “macho pulps,” as he calls them, is as invested in the politics of remembering earlier conflicts as it is in studying the effects of stylized memorializations on future combatants. At the heart of Pulp Vietnam sit two parallel interests: the sway that these commercialized depictions of past wars held over young men destined to fight, and the manner in which sex is equated with manliness. Like modern King Henrys, the pulps told young American men: if you win the war, you get the girl. Daddis recognizes the troubling ways in which these magazines weave together sex and violence to create something more nefarious, a sense of entitlement.

The titles of these awkward bits of Americana leave little question to their content and intended audience: True Action, Battlefield, Battle Cry, Real WarReal AdventureMan’s AdventureAction for MenFor Men OnlyMan’s IllustratedAll ManMan’s Day, Man’s LifeMaleMenStag. Blending sensationalized accounts of wartime heroism with liberal amounts of erotic fantasy and salacious photographs, these cheap magazines offered a kind of “sentimental militarism” and ranked “among the most widely read cultural products of the Cold War era.” The pulps routinely featured tales of American military heroism, most often taken from World War II (occasionally the wars in Korea and Vietnam). Accounts of extraordinary valor in unimaginable circumstances sit alongside tales of (always heterosexual) sex and seduction. Fiction, advertising, and seductive photographs mingle throughout, until the distinctions between reality and fantasy blur. Despite their down-market appeal, these campy magazines were part of the formation of midcentury American masculinity. It is not always easy reading.

“In this era of Cold War anxieties,” Daddis writes, “adventure magazines helped shape young male readers’ world views, driving home an alternative version of masculinity for a mass society seemingly bent on weakening American manhood.” Contemporary threats to masculinity — women succeeding in business, men failing to perform — are paired with stories of action and adventure (where men never fail to perform), offering a sense of escape from the humdrum of midcentury masscult. In a typical escape adventure and some two years before The Godfather would bring lasting commercial success, Mario Puzo wrote a story for Male, chronicling the “2,000-Mile Jungle Breakout from the Amazon’s Captive Girl Pen.” In the story, “‘lush, silken bodied females’ are rescued from a ‘lust-crazed’ South American warlord.” The accompanying illustrations “suggested the heroes would be justly rewarded not long after they make their escape.” Performance in war, the pulps suggest, inoculates against the threats of domesticity.

Editor's Note: Greg Daddis authored a recent essay for HNN on related subject matter. Read here. 

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books