World War II history buffs may find that they are already familiar with much of the material in "Virtue Under Fire," but author John Costello presents it in a new light. The subject matter is a simmering stew of the soldier's quest for love and sex, of women losing their virtue in the strong emotional currents of wartime and of the cumulative effects of faithfulness or unfaithfulness on relationships that are strained by separation and fear of death.
The author describes his work as a "broad documentary review of wartime sexual activities and attitudes among Americans and the British" in the decade that encompassed World War II. Costello contends that there is a strong correlation between violence and eroticism, which, he says, accounts for the frequent abandonment of traditional morality in a wartime society.
We are made to understand why there was an epidemic of "war aphrodisia" in both England and America. The excitement and the urgency of war eroded moral restraints. Couples married in haste, and For unmarried women in the era before the Pill, it was dangerous but hard to resist a soldier or sailor who would be gone tomorrow, and who might never return.
One of the best chapters provides a history of women's involvement in war, from the eras of Joan of Arc, Molly Pitcher and Florence Nightingale to the days of the FANYS (British nurses of the Crimean War), the American WACs (Women's Army Corps) and the Rosie the Riveters, who did heavy work in U.S. war plants. The author gives some amusing insights into the prudery of the British War Office in designing the first uniforms for the female auxiliaries. There "was considerable bureaucratic soul-searching among its senior officers whether breast pockets on women's uniforms would draw too much attention to the female anatomy and encourage public speculation about the lax morality of the corps."
By the time thousands of American women were in the service in World War II, their uniforms were looking better, but their reputations were not. Rumors of the alleged moral looseness of the WACs, the Armed Forces nurses and other women's services circulated in both countries. The fighting soldier did not like his woman working in war plants or joining the services; he still cherished the vision of her back home, waiting for him. The author concludes that the concept of women in uniform was an "insult to the collective machismo of the American male."
Whether their men liked it or not, the women were needed in this war effort. Probably no one in World War II, however, envisioned the ultimate results of the women's enjoyment of their increased wages, new-found independence and sense of self-esteem. The foundation for the social revolution of the 1960s and '70s had been laid.
The book studies in detail the sex lives of the British soldier and the GI. A 1945 U.S. Army survey of the American troops was kept secret for almost four decades, "because it reflected badly on the public image of the GI as a clean-living crusader for democracy."
Some of the findings concern homosexuality. Costello writes that World War II, "by the very act of bringing so many homosexuals together, helped sow the seeds of a collective consciousness that was to contribute to the evolution of the so-called Gay Liberation movement in the United States twenty years after the war had ended."
The reader is given an overdose on the subject of bordellos, one-night stands and venereal diseases. By the time the healing magic of a new drug, penicillin, makes its appearance in the text, it is a relief that the subject can now be changed.
The book would be far more effective if the author had better organized his material and had not jumped back and forth so much in his chronology and text. But for sociologists, historians of the period and writers concerned with the changing attitudes of women in this new age, "Virtue Under Fire" is an interesting read.