Love, Sex and War
From Chapter 1: Making Love and War
Since love and war represent the extremes of human experience, it is no surprise to find that a ‘total war’ had profound emotional and sexual consequences for many of its participants. ‘We were not really immoral, there was a war on,’ was how one British housewife explained her behaviour during World War II. So pervasive was this attitude that it seemed that sexual restraint had been suspended for the duration, as the traditional licence of the battlefield invaded the home front. ‘By most people’s standards we were immoral,’ admitted an American soldier, ‘but we were young and could die tomorrow.’
The urgency and excitement of wartime soon eroded moral restraints, and life on many home fronts appeared as cheap and short as life on the battle front. Soldiers had always claimed fear of death on the battlefield as an excuse for sexual licence. ‘In war a man has to love, if only to reassert that he’s very much alive in the face of destruction,’ explained a US army sergeant. ‘Whoever has loved in wartime takes part in a passionate reaffirmation of his life.’
In the same way, many British women attributed their wartime immorality to air raids. (p. 19)
The emotional turbulence of war left a lasting impact on many marriages. Traditionally wives had waved their husbands off to war on the assumption that strict fidelity was incompatible with soldiering, but such was total war that even on the home front many wives were confronted by new choices and opportunities. One English woman who confessed she had ‘enjoyed herself’ conceded that the old dual standard of feminine fidelity was no longer acceptable to wives. (p. 22)
The constancy of wives and sweethearts became a preoccupation for all servicemen and a gnawing anxiety for front-line soldiers in World War II anxiously awaiting every letter from home...
Many British women, through loneliness and circumstance, broke social conventions and their husbands’ hearts following the ‘friendly invasion’ of American troops in the year before D-Day. ‘Our own servicemen were set aside for the Americans, who appeared more glamorous in every way because of the movies and their generosity with money,’ recalled one British woman. ‘There were fights between them and our men over girls. I knew of two young wives that left and divorced chaps they seemed to have been devoted to.’
Next to an enemy bullet or mortar shell, the receipt of a ‘Dear John’ letter from home confessing marital infidelity or desertion was the worst blow that could hit an infantryman in a front line foxhole. A group of GIs in North Africa had organized a ‘Brush-Off Club’ whose admission qualification was to have been jilted. Most American girls interviewed in a December 1944 newspaper survey agreed, ‘to jilt a soldier is a serious offence’; but one of the more forthright interviewees insisted, ‘those guys over there aren’t just shy-eyed sheep in a jeep.’ (pp. 25-27)
Not every soldier could count on the spiritual comfort of the girl he was fighting to get home for. ‘I haven’t got what you call a real girlfriend and on a night like this, it sure hurts,’ confessed one GI to his parents in a letter before he embarked for the D-Day invasion. ‘A guy gets lonely out here and should have somebody to want to come back to and share building a wonderful life together, hand in hand. And that means a girl you’d want to marry and have for the mother of your kids, and who would wait and pray for you on a night like this.’
‘It is my contention,’ reflected one GI, ‘that when a man loves a woman, she always remains a vivid memory.’ This particular staff sergeant’s ‘sensual nymph, with brown eyes and red-black hair,’ had been a tap-dancer from Spokane, whose memory haunted him before he went into action. ‘Now that I may soon die on the battlefield nine years later, I realize more forcibly than ever that I am still in love with her.’ (p. 28)
The extensive personal testimony to the emotional impact of World War II suggests that what men and women were fighting for had less to do with abstract notions of freedom or patriotism than with the need to protect the personal values represented by sweethearts, wives, and families. Sex, therefore, played an extensive role in the war experience. Whether it was pin-ups of Hollywood stars, well-thumbed pictures of ‘the girl back home,’ ‘Rosie the Riveter,’ the archetypal female factory workers, or women pilots, World War II acquired an undeniably feminine aspect. (p. 28)
The postwar trend towards liberalization of moral attitudes and the coincident ‘liberation’ of the female population was accelerated rather than set in motion by World War II. – Wars have always been powerful catalysts of social change. The Carthaginian Wars brought the first recorded campaign for women’s liberation in 215 BC, when the Roman senate repealed the discriminatory Oppian tax law – despite Cato the Elder’s warning that ‘what women want is complete freedom – or, to put it bluntly, complete licence.’ The Hundred Years’ War saw the patriarchal authority of the church challenged by Joan of Arc when she led the French troops to victory over an English army at Orleans. She was condemned for daring to dress as a man, ‘in violation of canon law, abominable to God and man.’ Yet three centuries later, American women were increasingly drawn into the active prosecution of war after the Union recruited them to take over the clerical and factory jobs of male conscripts in the Civil War. World War I mobilized industrial and human resources on such a scale that Winston Churchill was moved to write, ‘All the horrors of the ages were brought together, and not only armies, but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them.’
The historic distinction between civilian and fighting fronts, already eroded by the partial female mobilization of World War I, was finally demolished by the more extensive mobilization of women into the armed services and the production battle of World War II. (pp. 29-30)
‘War aphrodisia,’ as it has been called, accentuates the disruptive physical impact of war on family life. The loosening of wartime moral restraints acts as an incentive to extramarital promiscuity and the unshackling of unsatisfactory marriage bonds. Historically it was a phenomenon confined to areas adjacent to the fighting, but the mobilization of entire populations necessary to fight a ‘total war’ spreads the hedonistic impulse throughout a society. (p. 30)
John Costello, Love Sex and War: Changing Values, 1939-45. William Collins, London, 1985.