Kara Dixon Vuic: Prostitution and the U.S. Military

Roundup: Historians' Take

Kara Dixon Vuic is a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the author of "Officer, Nurse, Woman: The Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War." Contact her at kv9c@virginia.edu.

Recent news that nine military personnel and 11 Secret Service agents allegedly solicited prostitutes in Columbia has sparked a congressional inquiry, institutional investigations and much speculation about how such an act might threaten presidential security. Were these men just a few bad apples? Maybe. But the American military has a long history of sanctioning prostitution, one that suggests much deeper concerns about its cultivation of a sexualized culture that can help to explain such an astonishingly brash act.

Although the Civil War's Gen. Joseph Hooker is probably the most well-known military commander to officially sanction prostitution, he is certainly not alone. American military history is littered with officials who drew connections between a soldier's sexual habits and his battlefield performance. As Gen. George Patton put it most famously (and perhaps most crassly), "if they don't [blank], they don't fight." Other, less explicit, officials feared that soldiers would in fact have sex and that they would acquire venereal disease in the process. The military reconciled these two seemingly contradictory beliefs by providing prostitutes for men in the hope that a regulated system would be safer than the alternative. It was, Gen. John Pershing believed, "the best way to handle a difficult problem."...

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