Dear John

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From The Wall Street Journal:

‘If the Army had wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one.” It’s an oft-repeated quip within the armed forces. As Susan Carruthers demonstrates in “Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America,” it takes a very sturdy relationship to survive the institutional culture of the military.

Ms. Carruthers, a professor of U.S. and international history at the University of Warwick in England, takes as her central motif the “Dear John letter”—a breakup note sent by a woman at home to her man in uniform overseas. The term was first used, we are told, in a national newspaper in October 1943. Such letters have since become a symbol of the female treachery that can damage a man as deeply as the wartime loss of life or limb.

The author acknowledges that women had written rejection letters before—Ernest Hemingway received one after being hospitalized during World War I. But World War II involved more troops and lengthier overseas service, putting more romantic relationships under strain for longer periods of time.

In subsequent years, during the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Dear Johns have been mythologized within both popular culture and the armed forces. In 1953, Jean Shepard warbled: “Dear John oh how I hate to write / Dear John I must let you know tonight / That my love for you has died away like grass upon the lawn / And tonight I wed another dear John.”

The armed forces’ distrust of romantic relationships—and the apparent misogyny that underlies this view—ripples throughout Ms. Carruthers’s prose. From the start, the military feared that wives posed an alternative pole of attraction, pulling enlisted men’s attention away from duty and discipline. Writing in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1942, the advice columnist Gretta Palmer told readers: “Among the officers, there is an unofficial belief that ‘a colonel must have a wife, a major should, a captain may and a lieutenant mustn’t.’ ”

Women who wrote letters to their sweethearts or husbands on the front were encouraged to make their missives sunny and supportive. A soldier’s rage at receiving a Dear John letter reflected his sense of betrayal. This sentiment was captured by Gen. George Patton when he said that women who wrote Dear John letters “should be shot as traitors.” There was no room in this picture for a woman’s gnawing anxieties, loneliness or sense of abandonment.

. . . .

Analysis of military wives ramped up in the 1970s as Army psychiatrists and psychologists began publishing studies of their behavior. During the Vietnam era, according to these studies, these women were full of inexpressible rage against both their absent husbands and the pressures to satisfy their husbands’ emotional needs while endlessly stifling their own. Returning prisoners of war were shocked to find that, in their absence, some of their wives had joined the antiwar movement. “The ending of marriages was woven into a larger national tapestry of loss,” Ms. Carruthers argues. “A lost war, lost respect for traditional values, lost male authority, lost national valor all tied together by allegations of individual and institutional disloyalty.” Yet Ms. Carruthers finds no evidence that any Dear John letter was prompted by disapproval of the war.

In her chapters dealing with emotional injuries and suicide, Ms. Carruthers discusses how the association between lost loves and lives lost became entrenched, especially after 2003, when the armed forces began compiling suicide statistics. The proposition that a romantic breakdown was the No. 1 precipitating event for active-duty suicide was treated as a claim that needed no further corroboration.

Yet, as Ms. Carruthers points out, precipitants are not necessarily causes. There are many contributing factors to the suicide of a psychologically vulnerable soldier, not leastof which is that distance aggravates existing problems in a marriage. A relationship that already included domestic violence, infidelity, money problems, sexual dysfunction or other conflicts will not blossom when one partner is in Kansas and the other is in Kabul. The author suggests that “it was (and still is) easier for some military commanders and psychiatrists to castigate failing relationships than to candidly reckon the psychological toll of prolonged war-waging.” A raft of new programs has recently been introduced to help soldiers build resilient relationships, but the programs still imply that “it’s the job of women to preserve ‘their’ soldier’s mental health.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link, but PG apologizes if you hit a paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

2 thoughts on “Dear John”

  1. Glah. This particular line stood out: “A raft of new programs has recently been introduced to help soldiers build resilient relationships, but the programs still imply that ‘it’s the job of women to preserve ‘their’ soldier’s mental health.'”

    I will guarantee you that if you asked either the author of this review or the author of this book if it’s part of a man’s job to provide his wife/girlfriend with mental and emotional support when she’s going through a tough spot they would not only say yes, they would probably go on a rant about how you were a terrible person for even asking the question. Acting as a part, not the whole, of your romantic partner’s mental and emotional support when they’re under stress is part of the whole “in sickness or in health, for richer or poorer” thing, and that line is only the most egregious example of the authors’ apparent double standard for the (mostly female) writers and the (mostly male) recipients of these letters.

    Also, I find the claim that no Dear John letters in Vietnam were motivated by antiwar sentiment to be…overstated. Just by the law of averages there had to be some.

  2. The book review (and the book itself) leaves a lot to be desired, but the comments in the Wall Street Journal article were enlightening.

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