The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The military changed Hugh Hefner. Years later, he changed the military.

The Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan discusses the legacy of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)
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War transcends time, and so do the urges of those who fight them. Especially when it comes to Playboy.

Stacks of faded and tattered copies of the controversial men’s lifestyle magazine crowded the underside of bunks at patrol bases in Vietnam and in sweltering tents in Kuwait during Desert Storm. They were slid into care packages with a wink, destined for the forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, where young men valued the analog version of pornography even as volumes of explicit videos circulated on small thumb drives.

Hugh Hefner, who died Wednesday of natural causes at 91, forged social revolution partly because of his own time in uniform during World War II, a one-man counteroffensive against buttoned-up social movements in postwar America. But he would also revolutionize how the country thought about conflicts to come.

Hefner, who was from Chicago, was already honing artistic pursuits in high school by sketching his alter ego “Goo Heffer” into high school-age adventures and using Esquire as a blueprint to build a stylish young man, said Susan Gunelius, author of “Building Brand Value the Playboy Way.” Though he served initially as a rifleman, the Army slotted Hefner as a typist, and he wrote for a military newspaper in the United States, never shipping overseas.

“Without that time in the military to sit behind a desk and spend time working on creative things, his life would’ve been different,” Gunelius told The Washington Post.

Hugh Hefner, visionary editor who founded Playboy magazine, dies at 91

Hefner’s two years in the Army constituted an important touchstone for what would eventually become Playboy, said David Allyn, author of “Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution, an Unfettered History.”

“As it almost always does, the military had a democratizing effect on social attitudes. For real military discipline to exist, race, class, ethnicity and other social distinctions cannot matter,” Allyn told The Post. Servicemen received relatively candid sex education because of syphilis epidemics among the ranks, Allyn added, and the postwar migration of gay men to cities like San Francisco and New York contributed to more cosmopolitan worldviews among some veterans. Hefner, for his time, had progressive views on homosexuality, Allyn said.

“I have no doubt Hefner’s social attitudes were influenced by his time in the service, where he would have been exposed to men (and women) from a vast range of backgrounds,” he said.

Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the head coalition commander during Desert Storm, welcomed “Operation Playmate,” a pen pal program between service members and Playmates. It went digital in 2001 in Afghanistan and 2003 in Iraq, with emailed photos gracing the inboxes of forward troops, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

By the time websites offered salacious videos and photos for free, Playboy readership declined in the military, with sales on posts eventually halted as anti-porn lobbyists pressured the Pentagon to keep the magazine away from troops.

Yet decades earlier in Vietnam, Playboy became connective tissue between troops deployed and a country wrestling with questions about its core identity.

How Hugh Hefner became Hef: From sexually repressed upbringing to renowned Playboy

“If World War II was a war of Stars and Stripes and Betty Grable, the war in Vietnam is Playboy magazine’s war,” The Post’s Ward Just wrote in 1967 from Rach Kien, a village on the delta south of Saigon. Writers filled its pages to make sense of the civil rights movement coinciding with escalating troop numbers, debate the justifications for the war itself and document the unraveling support among citizens back home.

By 1965, Playboy was a skeptical voice of the conflict that would leave 58,000 dead and a nation struggling to understand the consequences of the war well into 2017.

Yet the search for meaning and justice began even as the war raged.

“Traditionally, a soldier with a gripe is advised by friends to tell it to the chaplain, take it to the inspector general or write to his congressman,” a soldier wrote during the conflict, according to the New York Times. “Now, probably because of letters about military injustice in ‘The Playboy Forum,’ another court of last resort has been added to the list.”

In his war zone dispatch for The Post, Just described the magazine as a rallying point and a communal touchstone when it arrived among powered drink mix and records. Soldiers in a group leafed through the April issue, skipping past advertisements for French colognes, Swiss watches and other luxuries so far from the battlefield they might as well been from Mars.

Lt. Melvin F. Smith, then 24, landed on a glossy advertisement showcasing a new model of the Plymouth Fury, Just wrote. By then the car’s shape had dropped its fins, popular in the late 1950s, and taken on a more boxy appearance.

In his mind, Smith was briefly transported away from the Vietnam Delta and back to his driveway, realizing the contours of a sedan were no longer a method he could use to tell time.

“It’s bad,” he said, “when you forget the year.”

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