Review: Pulp Vietnam by Gregory A. Daddis

(Reviewed by Jerry Lembcke)

With titles such as Stag, Battle Cry, Man’s Adventure, and Valor, the male adventure magazines popular in the 1950s blended themes of combat heroism and sexual experience that enticed boys into the military and on to the war in Vietnam. Power was central to both the martial and sexual narratives: the power to dominate enemies in war and women in sex. Twined in that way, conquests in battle became sexy and performance in sex marshaled youthful virility for battle.         

The magazines’ lurid and brightly-colored covers typically combined a guns-a-blazing soldier with scantily-clad women cast as either damsels-in-distress awaiting rescue by the hero, or femme fatale other-enemies threatening to betray the fighter and his mission—with sex weaponized for deployment against men’s martial hardness. A 1959 Valor cover touched all the bases: a dark-haired woman in a short skirt and tube top with a flower in her hair hangs on the foregrounded redheaded warrior as his automatic weapon spews death from his hands. Above him, “Beat it Sister, I’ve Got a War to Fight,” announces a story on the inside. In the background, another fighter fends off a seducing figure with, “The Rebel Bitch Who Stopped a Regiment: The True Story of the Nympho Spy” whetting adolescent appetites for another good read.

The author, Gregory Daddis, is a history professor at San Diego State and a retired Army colonel. In this book, he locates the pulps in the Cold War climate of the 1950s, a time when the fear of Communism was palpable. The international status of The Soviet Union had soared after its defeat of Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front; the 1949 Chinese Revolution was inspiring peasant revolutionaries around the world; and at home, the Communist Party was well-positioned within the CIO unions it had helped organize. Was the United States up to the challenge?

The consumer culture that came with post-war World War II affluence enabled the denial of the looming Red menace.  City life had a particular desultory effect on the boys who soon would bear the burden of national defense. Compared with bygone years when farm boys grew up around their fathers, they now lived their early years at home with mothers as the primary parental figures. “Momism” threatened to produce a generation of “mama’s boys” who would wilt in combat—a dose of military masculinity was the prescription, and the “men’s mags,” as they were sometimes called, were the medicine. 

The pulps went to Vietnam with U.S. troops. Using archived data, Daddis shows that they regularly topped the sales lists in post-exchanges (PXs) where troops shopped. Into the early 1960s, however, World War II continued to dominate pulp contents—“Amazing U.S. Flyer Who Wrecked Hitler’s Bid for Atomic Weapons,” headlined a 1962 edition of Men. When Vietnam themes began to creep in, they were about the war, not Vietnam or its people. Just weeks after U.S helicopters inserted into a major battle at Ap Bac, the March 1963 issue of Brigade: Stories for Men featured “`copter War’ on the Phantom Vietcong Guerrillas.” 

Daddis highlights the disparity between the wars of The Greatest Generation that boys saw in the mens’ adventure magazines and the war they would fight in Vietnam. The “good fights” waged against fascism in Europe and Asia bestowed dignity on the men who fought them. But there was no such glory to be had in Vietnam, a place that most Americans could not find on a map and many who could, condemned U.S. presence there. The triumphs of World War II combat that filled the pulps in the 1950s went AWOL for grunts bogged down in unconventional warfare in Vietnam. 

That men exaggerate their military and sexual exploits is not news. But Daddis observes that Vietnam veterans’ “war stories” have an eerie resonance with the WWII fantasies purveyed by the pulps, an inference that veterans’ memories might be tangled with their imaginations of the wars they fought only vicariously through men’s adventure magazines.

Memory or imagination? The conundrum is just as germane to studies of that other theater of war—sex. Disappointed and resentful about the failure of “their” war to live up to the expectations of pulp-war, some GIs sought satisfaction in the conquest of women. But how many of their “remembered” triumphs on that front, including rape, are also fantasies induced by the fictive fare they bought at the PX? Gaddis’s skepticism about veterans’ claims about sex in Vietnam is evident in modifiers such as “impossible to say” and “no evidence exists” scattered throughout his chapter, “War and Sexual Violence Come to Vietnam.” 

The thought that men might remember wars they never fought—wars on the ground, in the air, in the brothels—has implications for studies of war trauma, public commemoration of the war, and the state of American masculinity. It also prompts a new look at the way Vietnamese women are represented in American versions of the war. If veterans inflate their sexual resumes even to the point of claiming atrocities they never committed, what does that say about the representations of women in those tales?

Historians document the gallantry of the Vietnamese women in home-front defense forces and as laborers and fighters on the Ho Chi Minh trail; as mothers, wives, and citizens they maintained families and hamlets under wartime privations. But those academic accounts are occluded by veterans’ “war stories” in which we see the women as whores and abject victims. Might it be that the disparagement of Vietnamese women in American historical memory is the flip side of the pulp-fiction-masculinity coin, a dialectic, of sorts, that enmeshes the study of either in that of the other? 

“All wars are fought twice,” writes novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, “the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” Pulp Vietnam is an intriguing case study inviting further consideration of his point.

*Jerry Lembke is the author of Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal. The 2006 film Sir! No Sir! featured his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. He is Associate Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts.  

<em>Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines </em>by Gregory A. Daddis.
Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines by Gregory A. Daddis.

(Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Gregory A. Daddis is a professor of history and the USS Midway Chair in Modern US Military History at San Diego State University. A retired US Army colonel, he has served in both Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. He has authored four books, including Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (2017).