The best books on the history of the military, war, and society in the twentieth-century United States

Jennifer Mittelstadt Author Of Rise of the Military Welfare State
By Jennifer Mittelstadt

Who am I?

I never thought I’d become a historian of the US military. Like most Americans raised in the era of the All-Volunteer Force, I grew up with no close personal connections to the US military. Yet its symbols, metaphors, and power flooded my life, from movies to games to politics. Every encounter with a memoir, an operational history, a biography, or a government study offered a new understanding of how the US military came to play such a vital role in US society, and how US society in turn shaped practices and people in the military. These five histories did more than any others to shape my understanding of the military’s relationship to American society in the twentieth century.

I wrote...

Rise of the Military Welfare State

By Jennifer Mittelstadt,

Book cover of Rise of the Military Welfare State

What is my book about?

Since the end of the draft, the U.S. Army has prided itself on its patriotic volunteers who heed the call to “Be All That You Can Be.” But beneath the recruitment slogans, the army promised volunteers something more tangible: a social safety net including medical and dental care, education, child care, financial counseling, housing assistance, legal services, and other privileges that had long been reserved for career soldiers. 

The Rise of the Military Welfare State examines how the U.S. Army’s extension of benefits to enlisted men and women created a military welfare system of unprecedented size and scope at the end of the twentieth century. And it examines how this welfare state fared amidst the rollback of civilian social welfare, a turn to “self-reliance” within the military leadership, and the growth of military privatization and outsourcing.  

The books I picked & why

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Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II

By Allan Bérubé,

Book cover of Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II

Why this book?

A classic work of war and society by a brilliant scholar of the gay experience during World War II. This deeply researched, lively book tells the personal stories of the gay men and women who were swept into military service in the 1940s. Berube documents how wartime induction put the military at the forefront of defining concepts of homosexuality at mid-century, and he describes the ambiguities and ambivalences that wartime service produced, both for the military and for gay service personnel. While the war brought hundreds of thousands of queer young people together and allowed them chances to create a vibrant new gay life, the military also grew increasingly repressive about homosexuality and instituted policies and practices to diagnose, disparage, and discharge gay men and women.

Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era

By Chad L. Williams,

Book cover of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era

Why this book?

Torchbearers is a pathbreaking history of the fight for American democracy during World War I, told from the perspective of African American servicemen who joined, fought, and returned from battle. Already engaged in conflict over civil rights in the US, African Americans took seriously the call to “make the world safe for democracy.” Through writing, activism, and organizing, they linked their domestic fight to the foreign fight against democracy’s enemies. Perhaps no other group in the US, Williams shows, was poised to engage the very biggest questions that animated the war – questions of citizenship, rights, freedom, and empire – as were African Americans. And their wartime service, he shows, was the crucible for the long freedom movement that followed.  

The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines

By Kara Dixon Vuic,

Book cover of The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines

Why this book?

Kara Vuic can tell a story! Her highly readable volume unearths the experiences of the tens of thousands of women who volunteered to sing, dance, play games, and break bread with soldiers throughout US military deployments of the 20th century. Enlisted by the military to keep up troop morale, women were sent to far-flung theaters of war, and served in every deployment from World War I through Iraq and Afghanistan.  Vuic teaches us how the military saw these “girls next door” as essential to encouraging men to fight, providing a fantasy of the American gendered dream — a girlfriend or wife back home. The women walked a tricky line, expected to exhibit enough femininity to entrance and entertain but not so much as to be sexually available. Vuic reveals the tensions and dangers faced by women working in troop morale and shows convincingly how gender and sexuality serve vital roles in military strategy.

Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II

By Mark R. Wilson,

Book cover of Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II

Why this book?

You can’t understand today’s privatized military without this groundbreaking new book on the history of WWII and the military-industrial complex. Wilson’s political and economic history overturns celebratory myths of American business acumen winning the war. Instead, Wilson shows that the “arsenal of democracy” lay not in the private sector but in the massive public sector of military-owned and military-operated production facilities that churned out planes, tanks, bombs, and materiel. Government production angered American businessmen who had hoped to capture wartime profits and legitimacy. Corporate leaders and their allies resisted government production at every turn and launched political and public relations campaigns to hide the government’s scope and successes. The private sector’s battle to regain control of military production and services, Wilson shows, launched a long-term movement toward military privatization and outsourcing.

Homefront: A Military City and the American Twentieth Century

By Catherine A. Lutz,

Book cover of Homefront: A Military City and the American Twentieth Century

Why this book?

When I picked up Homefront, I couldn’t put it down. A study of perhaps the most iconic military community in the US, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Homefront brings a reader as close to everyday life in a military town as they can get without being there. Lutz burrows into Fayetteville and Fort Bragg, and pries open their histories and cultures. She offers glimpses into military subculture, the militarization of American infrastructure, the tensions surrounding town-and-installation relations. More than any other book, Homefront sensitized me to the complexities of twentieth-century US military culture and its deep influence on American people, places, and ideas. 

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