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: November 15, 2019
Between the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the entrance of the United States into the Second World War in 1941, the U.S. Army evolved from a small, insular institution, mainly in the West, to a more modern force with deeper connections to American society, and missions far removed from the continental United States. In The Sexual Economy of War: Discipline and Desire in the U.S. Army, Andrew Byers, an expert on the intersection of health and the law, looks at changes in the ways the Army intervened in the sex lives of soldiers during that period. Despite the book’s title, it is less a work on the sexual economy of war, but more of the legal aspects of the U.S. Army regarding the sexual activities of soldiers. Byers presents five case studies of the U.S. Army in war, and more often in peacetime to explore the Army’s attempts to regulate sex, as well as underlying themes of class, race, sexuality, and regional values in American society.
As a baseline, Byers presents Fort Riley, Kansas, throughout the period under scrutiny to establish the bounds of what the Army did and did not tolerate in soldier sexuality. For this he draws extensively on records of courts martial of the period to describe the myriad and evolving stance of the Army toward sex. From that baseline, he compares the U.S. Army in the Philippines in the early decades of the twentieth century, a World War I mobilization camp at Camp Beauregard, Louisiana, the U.S. Army in France during World War I and in postwar Germany, and finally, in Hawaii in the decades leading up to World War II.
The Army’s main fear during the period was that soldiers would become incapacitated by venereal disease, and the Army linked the spread of the disease to prostitution. Originally, the Army established systems to regulate and monitor prostitutes, with forced treatment for those found infected. From a Victorian idea that held prostitution as a safety valve for the sexual urges of men that kept the virtue of respectable women intact, the Army, starting during the Civil War, used a system of performing health inspections on prostitutes and working to segregate soldiers and prostitutes who had syphilis or gonorrhea. The Army originally employed such a system in the Philippines and during the Mexican Border Crisis of 1916. While soldiers could in theory be punished for going to prostitutes, more often they were punished for other infractions, such as creating a public spectacle, with their involvement with prostitutes added on.
However, after tolerating prostitutes as a necessary evil for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Army came to embrace the view of moral reformers who saw prostitution, as well as other vices, as moral failings that society could cure. The War Department’s Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA), created specifically to ensure the health and morality of soldiers in the mobilization camps during World War I, worked hand-in-glove with the Army to end prostitution, as well as gambling and alcohol, near the camps. The CTCA and the Army helped close red light districts in Honolulu, as well as in Alexandria, Louisiana, during World War I, largely in an attempt to protect the soldiers from such temptations. However, the closures only tended to spread the prostitutes out and drive them underground, making control much more difficult.
World War I was in many ways the aberration. Prior to it, and to some extent afterward, the U.S. Army took a more utilitarian view of soldiers and sex, insisting that they undergo a painful and dubious treatment within three hours of coitus but in general assuming that enlisted soldiers would find sex. But the mass mobilization, and conscription, of World War I meant that wartime soldiers would be more likely to come from the middle class, serve for only the duration, and that a far greater percentage of American men would serve in the military. In response to the fear that Army life would corrupt the cream of American manhood, or that men would return to civilian life infected with a venereal disease that they would pass on to their wives, the Army sought during the war to discourage sex entirely. The Army went so far during the war and in the post-war occupation in Germany as to teach soldiers that sex itself was unnecessary, and that the chaste soldier was superior to a sexually active one. In wartime France, and later in Germany, civil officials abhorred the U.S. stance regarding prostitution, fearing it would lead to increased seduction and rape of respectable women. After the war, the Army increasingly saw homosexuality as a large problem, adopting the latest medical and psychological opinion that homosexuality indicated a defective person, and that the feminization of a man assumed to be part of homosexuality was incompatible with military service.
While some of these actions might strike modern readers as prudery and overreach, venereal diseases were far more serious health matters in the days before the discovery of effective antibiotics such as penicillin. Whether or not the Army’s attempts to lessen its spread through the use of the post-coitus prophylaxis treatment and the shutting down of red light districts were effective is arguable, but during a time when contraction of a venereal disease often led to blindness, insanity, and death, the fear of venereal diseases was not misplaced. Against this backdrop, the Army reflected the fears and beliefs of American society at large as it grappled with the implications of a larger force and deployments beyond the continental United States. Byers has given us a work that sheds new light to an often overlooked aspect of this important period in the history of the Army, providing context for a host of later issues the Army would grapple with.
Book Review written by: Barry M. Stentiford, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas