The Sexual Economy of War
Discipline and Desire in the U.S. Army
Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2019, 290 pages
Book Review published on: July 19, 2019
In the first four decades of the twentieth century, the U.S. Army underwent several major changes, including commitment in many countries, massive growth, demographic changes, increased professionalism, and internal reform. The Army also found that it could not ignore the role of sex in the military and developed a policy of strong concern with all sexual matters that pertained to the Army environment. This concern is referred to as the “sexual economy of war” because, in many ways, the Army would be affected by it. It was obvious that sexual activities in the Army could not be ignored and that intervention was a necessity. Hence, what we learn from Andrew Byers’s The Sexual Economy of War is the extent of intervention as well as why and how the Army reacted to the sexual activities of its members, especially during the period after the First World War and the beginning of the Second World War. A key motivation for the Army in sexual intervention was the fulfillment of its military mission. Yet, there was another reason: a belief in the irresistible need for sexual gratification among the soldiers.
The scope of the book, in terms of sexual behavior, is quite wide. As noted by Byers,
This book explores how the U.S. Army of the early twentieth century, on institutional and individual levels, perceived and intervened in a host of issues related to sexuality: marriage and family life, prostitution and venereal disease, rape and sexual violence, same-sex sexuality, and masculinity, among others. It examines how the army sought to regulate and shape the sexual behaviors of soldiers and the civilians with whom they came into sexual contact.
The U.S. Army also felt it had good reasons for intervening in the sexual activities of its service members. For example, the prevention of venereal disease would enhance the effectiveness of the Army and result in healthier soldiers better able to perform important duties. The maintenance of good order and morality within the military organization would also be more likely without sexual problems. In addition, a more positive image of the United States and its military would result as well.
Various types of sexual crimes were committed by members of the military during this period, but the Army reacted to them in different ways. Prostitution was tolerated to an extent as the difficulty in bringing about its elimination was recognized. Byers notes that the Army had been implicitly endorsing prostitution in the Philippines since November 1898 when American troops first arrived on the island. In addition, the views of prostitution were interesting. Byers notes that “while some military officers saw soldiers’ patronage of prostitutes as a moral problem, others viewed it as sheer necessity.”
Yet, rape and sexual assault were more likely to bring about a more serious reaction from the military. Of course, such crimes were more likely to receive public attention, and it is understandable why the military seemed to be more attentive to them. Adultery was also present but official reaction to it varied from doing nothing to minor punishment. However, homosexual activities could result in being discharged from the military. Hence, sexual crimes took place where American troops were present, but they differed and the military’s reaction to them also differed depending on circumstances.
This book has five main chapters dealing with sexual activities in various types of environments. For example, chapter 1 deals with a large American military based at Fort Riley, Kansas. Chapter 2 focuses on sexuality in the Philippines, where American soldiers had been stationed since 1898. Chapter 3 looks at a small American Army training camp in Louisiana. Chapter 4 discusses the behavior of the Army in France and Germany during the First World War. Chapter 5 notes the problems in the ethnically diverse state of Hawaii. It is interesting to note that although each major chapter focuses on various geographic areas with different characteristics, many of the sexual problems encountered in each area by military authorities were similar.
Although there were many sources used in writing this book, there seem to be two main sources used by Byers. One such source refers to the official U.S. records, especially those relating to courts martial and disciplinary actions. The second important source is personal documents involving individuals associated with the military. In addition, books and journals commenting about social conditions during that period were used by Byers to provide useful information.
The Sexual Economy of the War might provide some guidance in how today’s Army might handle sexual problems. Even though this book is a history of sexual activity during a particular period, it does suggest what could happen to the military today if there is little concern about sexual behavior. Specifically, the real problems resulting from sexual activity in the past could be present today. This is especially important because the Army has changed drastically in terms of how it reacts to matters involving sexual behaviors. What may have been tolerated in the past should not be tolerated today.
Book Review written by: William E. Kelly, PhD, Auburn University