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The Male Body at War: American Masculinity during World War II.

The Male Body at War: American Masculinity during World War II, by Christina S. Jarvis. DeKalb, Illinois, University of Northern Illinois Press, 2004. xiii, 243 pp. $43.00 US (cloth).

According to Christina Jarvis, a professor of English at SUNY Fredonia, the United States' post-World War II perception of itself is so lacking in historical context and gendered subtext that the war has been "wrongly invoked time and again to engender and legitimize other armed conflicts" (p. 191). Jarvis hopes to correct this perceived weakness by examining how the war was used to replace the Depression Era image of an anxious American masculinity with the hyper-masculine image of World War II and the Cold War. She attempts to do this by examining the connection between the emerging "powerful male 'body politic'" and the United States' "rising status as a world power" (p. 4).

Jarvis begins by considering government efforts to shore up American manhood during the Depression through alphabet programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and, during World War II, to limn anew a virile, white, national masculinity. Traditional patriotic symbols morphed to accommodate this reconstruction; Uncle Sam developed bulging muscles, his image all but eradicating Lady Liberty and Lady Columbia. Although integral to the war effort, the Roosevelt administration's success at casting a comic-book-proportioned male body as the embodiment of the nation came at a cost to women and non-white males, including Asians and Pacific Islanders.

Once essential masculinity was re-established, the male body underwent militarization. The armed forces were fundamental to effecting the desired idealized masculine image through medical examinations that determined a man's physical capacity for the rigors of combat and intense physical training. A man's sexuality, hence his masculinity, was also controlled by the military through periodic venereal disease screenings and prohibitions against homosexuality.

Combat, however, interfered with the masculine ideal. Dead, wounded, or dismembered soldiers were typically seen as feminine and abject, thus posing a threat to the government's careful construction of the inviolable, impenetrable male body (politic). To protect the desired image, the administration redirected popular attention away from the physical damage soldiers suffered toward the "bravery, determination and revenge" the wounds represented (p. 100). Moreover, America's ingenuity at rehabilitating severely wounded servicemen through technology, and a man's innate ability to remasculinize himself proved national vigour. Wounds, therefore, reinforced American masculinity. Unfortunately, the place of the dead in the male body politic is less clear. Jarvis's discussion of the way in which death and memorialization connect with masculinity and the male body politic during World War II lacks focus and organization.

The Male Body at War is an interesting and useful look at gender, nationalism, and the soldier. Oddly, the author's contributions to understanding the soldiers' experience are likely unintentional because despite her extensive discussion of soldiers' reactions to their injured comrades, Jarvis somehow manages to maintain a distance from the centrality of combat to a soldier's existence and to other things military. Perhaps this is a function of her sources. She conducted interviews with veterans, and makes good use of art, film, and fiction. Indeed, her discussion of combat wounds is based almost wholly on James Jones's The Thin Red Line (Scribner, 1962). One wonders what Jarvis would have been able to tell us had she dug a little deeper into memoirs and other primary sources. This weakness aside, Jarvis has written a readable and engaging book appropriate in a gender studies, World War II and American society, or military history course for honours or advanced students.

Janet G. Valentine

US Army Center of Military History
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Author:Valentine, Janet G.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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