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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Allan Bérubé

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.


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

By Chad L. Williams

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.  


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

By Kara Dixon Vuic

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.


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

By Mark R. Wilson

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.


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Homefront: A Military City and the American Twentieth Century

By Catherine A. Lutz

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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