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

December 5, 2020   •   By Nicholas Utzig

Pulp Vietnam

Gregory Daddis

“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 War, Real Adventure, Man’s Adventure, Action for Men, For Men Only, Man’s Illustrated, All Man, Man’s Day, Man’s Life, Male, Men, Stag. 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.


The pulps fed a strict diet of moral clarity, extreme violence, and unambiguous heroism to American soldiers, who in turn failed in their fundamental wartime duty to protect noncombatants. Instead of reality, the pulps teemed with tales that emphasized bravery over brutality, often with sex as the implied reward. Mediated through the pulps, earlier American wars morphed into tales of adventure and excitement. Death, when it came, was clean. Like Shakespeare’s Henry, the pulps memorialize courage in a kind of fantasy, ignoring the brutality of war. Sensationalized — often sexualized, as in the case of the “Jungle Breakout” tale — war stories recontextualize those moments when the pulps did glance at the ugliness of war. “When Man’s World ran a 1967 story of a ‘go-it-alone guerrilla demon’ who fought a ‘no-holds-barred private war that left the occupied Philippines littered with Japanese corpses,’” it effectively conflated killing with heroism. In the pages of the pulps, it seems difficult to readily distinguish between the two.


Meanwhile, the American military “experience in South Vietnam exposed the lie of pulp war stories.” In Vietnam, American military readers of the pulps found, not excitement and adventure, but confusion and suffering, and Daddis does not shy from the consequences. This dissonance, Daddis argues, contributed to a “war culture” that would enable some of the Vietnam war’s worst atrocities. His final chapter, “War and Sexual Violence Come to Vietnam,” is heart-rending as Daddis explores the intersection of an unchecked misogynist popular culture and unaccountable wartime activity. While Daddis frequently reminds his readers that the pulps are only one factor among many that contributed to the sexual violence perpetrated during the war, their influence seems undeniable. In a particularly compelling moment, Daddis cites evidence from field reports and trial records of the My Lai massacre — an unconscionable atrocity during which American soldiers murdered an estimated 500 noncombatants — and finds that soldiers turned to the language of the pulps to explain their actions.


One soldier […] believed his peers had decided the “epitome of courage and manhood was going out and killing a bunch of people.” Another veteran spoke of the killings as “scratching an itch,” just something that veterans in Korea and World War II had done only a few decades earlier.”


In Vietnam, soldiers found no reward for their fighting and the local population suffered blame as a result. William Calley Jr., the commander of the soldiers who perpetrated the My Lai massacre, “acknowledged not seeing old men, women, and children in Son My village, simply the ‘enemy.’”


Although gender — more specifically, a heteronormative sense of masculinity — remains a central critical concern of Pulp Vietnam, Daddis quietly acknowledges a related line of inquiry in whiteness. “In the pulps, if not broader Cold War culture, American masculinity rested on notions of racial superiority,” he writes. Daddis has in mind, here and often throughout, a kind of Orientalism, and Pulp Vietnam readily makes the case that the Western racial hierarchies embraced by men’s adventure magazines encouraged a kind of viciousness against the Vietnamese people; however, Pulp Vietnam tends to rush past the ways in which the United States’s domestic racial tensions play out in the pages of the pulps.


The first two words of Pulp Vietnam, “John Wayne,” illustrate this effect. The Duke drifts in and out of Pulp Vietnam, always as the apotheosis of curated, action-adventure masculinity, a figure with whom countless soldiers would become disillusioned after realizing that their wars were not the stuff of Hollywood fantasy. But there was more to John Wayne than manly adventure. “I believe in white supremacy,” the icon of midcentury American masculinity told Playboy in 1971. Such a sentiment seemingly lurks behind the macho pulps that were written and published almost exclusively “by and for white men.” The feature stories “also largely ignored the exploits of African American soldiers,” Daddis notes in an aside, while Black women were entirely excluded from the fantasies. Like the Ur-American action star, masculinity and violence are inextricably linked with white dominance.


Tangled among these issues, I think, also sits the lasting legacy of a segregated military. While the armed forces were officially integrated in 1948, Black soldiers were often kept out of elite combat units. The racial politics of who can serve and how — along with who is permitted to become a hero in print — sits adjacent to Pulp Vietnam, which makes only occasional mentions of “racial tensions” among the deployed troops and briefly acknowledges some worry in the pulps about the Black Power movement.


While an intersectional approach might have overtaken his focus on soldier-readers, Daddis clearly makes the case for the uncomfortable impact of these peculiar magazines and the need for further study. How did these popular magazines shape the ways in which soldiers of an integrated army understood one another? Did the combination of whiteness and violence enflame the racial tensions soldiers brought with them to Vietnam? Daddis’s study opens up a host of possibilities for further inquiry, and Pulp Vietnam promises not to be the last word on the subject.


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Nicholas Utzig is a PhD candidate in the department of English at Harvard University, where his research focuses on representations of soldiers in early modern English drama.