The best unexpected histories of the US military

Why am I passionate about this?

I started my career as a historian of gender and sexuality, but in what I sometimes describe as a mid-career crisis I became a historian of the US Army. I love doing research in archives, piecing together the scraps of stories and conversations into a broader whole, figuring out how people made sense of the world they lived in. The books I write make arguments that I hope will be useful to other historians and to military leaders, but I also want people to enjoy reading them. 


I wrote...

Book cover of An Army Afire: How the US Army Confronted Its Racial Crisis in the Vietnam Era

What is my book about?

By the late 1960s, as the US war in Vietnam wore on, Black and white soldiers confronted each other in barracks and bars, fighting a “war within the war” over race. It was the end of "same mud, same blood," when the military was praised as a model of racial integration. Now, a new generation of Black GIs had decisively rejected the racism their forefathers had endured.
Army leaders, worried that the growing racial crisis undermined the army's ability to defend the nation, were surprisingly creative in confronting demands for racial justice, even willing to challenge fundamental army principles. An Army Afire tells the frustrating yet fascinating story of how the institution of the US Army tried to solve “the problem of race.”

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Elvis's Army: Cold War GIs and the Atomic Battlefield

Beth Bailey Why did I love this book?

This is the army that drafted the King of Rock and Roll.

But it is also an army that feared it was becoming irrelevant and tried to reinvent itself for the atomic age. It’s fascinating to watch a historian as knowledgeable as Brian Linn weave a story that connects the army’s move to incorporate men across the lines of race and class, region and religion, education, and ability, with its efforts to develop doctrine for sophisticated technological warfare.

Crew-fired tactical nuclear weapons, anyone?

By Brian McAllister Linn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Elvis's Army as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When the U.S. Army drafted Elvis Presley in 1958, it quickly set about transforming the King of Rock and Roll from a rebellious teen idol into a clean-cut GI. Trading in his gold-trimmed jacket for standard-issue fatigues, Elvis became a model soldier in an army facing the unprecedented challenge of building a fighting force for the Atomic Age.

In an era that threatened Soviet-American thermonuclear annihilation, the army declared it could limit atomic warfare to the battlefield. It not only adopted a radically new way of fighting but also revamped its equipment, organization, concepts, and training practices. From massive garrisons…


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

Beth Bailey Why did I love this book?

Kara Vuic gives us the story of young women who went to war—not those in the uniforms of military service, but those who were sent to help boost morale of the men who fought and to remind them of the homes they’d left behind.

She’s keenly aware of the complications and contradictions in the roles the women were expected to fulfill, and of the emotional toll of their work, but she also offers us a sense of their spirit of adventure and a glimpse of the more intimate aspects of 20th century US wars.

By Kara Dixon Vuic,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Girls Next Door as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story of the intrepid young women who volunteered to help and entertain American servicemen fighting overseas, from World War I through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The emotional toll of war can be as debilitating to soldiers as hunger, disease, and injury. Beginning in World War I, in an effort to boost soldiers' morale and remind them of the stakes of victory, the American military formalized a recreation program that sent respectable young women and famous entertainers overseas.

Kara Dixon Vuic builds her narrative around the young women from across the United States, many of whom had never…


Book cover of Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men's Adventure Magazines

Beth Bailey Why did I love this book?

This book insists that we need to think about the ways that what we read or view may shape the way we see the world.

Greg Daddis has waded through mountains of “macho pulps”—the massively-popular war-focused men’s adventure magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, with titles like True Men, Male, Valor, and Battle Cry—to show us how they portrayed men and war.

He asks how these stories of outsized heroism (often accompanied by sexual conquest) may have shaped the expectations of the young men sent to fight in Vietnam.

Pulp Vietnam is a masterful balancing act, never insisting that A → B, but refusing to treat popular culture as nothing more than a story. And the color photo insert is worth the price all by itself!

By Gregory A. Daddis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pulp Vietnam as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this compelling evaluation of Cold War popular culture, Pulp Vietnam explores how men's adventure magazines helped shape the attitudes of young, working-class Americans, the same men who fought and served in the long and bitter war in Vietnam. The 'macho pulps' - boasting titles like Man's Conquest, Battle Cry, and Adventure Life - portrayed men courageously defeating their enemies in battle, while women were reduced to sexual objects, either trivialized as erotic trophies or depicted as sexualized villains using their bodies to prey on unsuspecting, innocent men. The result was the crafting and dissemination of a particular version of…


Book cover of Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps

Beth Bailey Why did I love this book?

Aaron O’Connell, himself a former Marine, gives us the line commonly attributed to army officer:

“In the army a squad consists of thirteen men. In the Marine Corps it consists of twelve men and a press agent.” In this very readable work, he shows us how the Marine Corps developed its identity and, in essence, built its brand—as a means to claiming public support and resources as the services struggled for position and prominence in the years following World War II.

By Aaron B. O'Connell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Underdogs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Marine Corps has always considered itself a breed apart. Since 1775, America's smallest armed service has been suspicious of outsiders and deeply loyal to its traditions. Marines believe in nothing more strongly than the Corps' uniqueness and superiority, and this undying faith in its own exceptionalism is what has made the Marines one of the sharpest, swiftest tools of American military power. Along with unapologetic self-promotion, a strong sense of identity has enabled the Corps to exert a powerful influence on American politics and culture. Aaron O'Connell focuses on the period from World War II to Vietnam, when the…


Book cover of Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America

Beth Bailey Why did I love this book?

This is one of those topics that seems obvious once someone writes a book about it—but Susan Carruthers is the one who recognized a topic crying out for attention, and she’s the very best person I can imagine writing this book.

She’s good at poignancy and irony and heartbreak. That may sound like a strange thing to say about a historian—she’s good at heartbreak—but she understands that history is made up of people. There’s an argument here, in addition to some absorbing stories, but she’s also asking us to stop and think: what role have Dear John letters played in America’s wars?

By Susan L. Carruthers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dear John as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Are 'Dear John' letters lethal weapons in the hands of men at war? Many US officers, servicemen, veterans, and civilians would say yes. Drawing on personal letters, oral histories, and psychiatric reports, as well as popular music and movies, Susan L. Carruthers shows how the armed forces and civilian society have attempted to weaponize romantic love in pursuit of martial ends, from World War II to today. Yet efforts to discipline feeling have frequently failed. And women have often borne the blame. This sweeping history of emotional life in wartime explores the interplay between letter-writing and storytelling, breakups and breakdowns,…


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A Beggar's Bargain

By Jan Sikes,

Book cover of A Beggar's Bargain

Jan Sikes Author Of The Edge of Too Late

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Avid reader Lover of Music Astral Traveler Tarot Reader Grandmother

Jan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Historical Fiction Post WW2.

A shocking proposal that changes everything.

Desperate to honor his father’s dying wish, Layken Martin vows to do whatever it takes to save the family farm.
Once the Army discharges him following World War II, Layken returns to Missouri to find his legacy in shambles and in jeopardy. A foreclosure notice from the bank doubles the threat. He appeals to the local banker for more time—a chance to rebuild, plant, and harvest crops and time to heal far away from the noise of bombs and gunfire.

But the banker firmly denies his request. Now what?

Then,…

A Beggar's Bargain

By Jan Sikes,

What is this book about?

A shocking proposal that changes everything.

Desperate to honor his father's dying wish, Layken Martin vows to do whatever it takes to save the family farm.

Once the Army discharges him following World War II, Layken returns to Missouri to find his legacy in shambles and in jeopardy. A foreclosure notice from the bank doubles the threat. He appeals to the local banker for more time-a chance to rebuild, plant, and harvest crops and time to heal far away from the noise of bombs and gunfire.

But the banker firmly denies his request. Now what?

Then, the banker makes an…


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