- Where the Girls Are:The Management of Venereal Disease by United States Military Forces in Vietnam
Military health-education films form an intriguing branch of cinema from the standpoint of ideology critique. Inasmuch as they serve military purposes, assisting in the constitution of dependable soldier-subjects (i.e., subjects of the United States military), they are produced and received as unabashed works of propaganda. On the other hand, as films serving purposes of health education, they are yoked to the imperatives of a certain realism, a communication of medical knowledge regarding actual conditions in the field that soldier-viewers can put into effective practice. This contradiction, and the special pressures it exerts on cinematic form, manifest especially graphically in the military sex-education materials of the Vietnam period.
Where the Girls Are—VD in Southeast Asia (hereinafter referred to as Girls) was commissioned as a basic sexual-education film just as United States involvement in Vietnam was deepening.1 Completed as the American military presence reached its height in Southeast Asia, it was first shown to overseas air force personnel and shortly thereafter adopted by the United States Army as well. The film served as an important introduction for new recruits to the culture of Vietnam and was intended to provide realistic medical information for troops on the ground. However, it also demonstrates the mixed impulses at work in the armed forces' efforts to control soldiers' sexual behavior. Its complicated production history and uneven cinematic form provide evidence of the larger mission involved in the making of the ideal American soldier. The film emphasizes a message of psychological and [End Page 66] physical prophylaxis combined with a stereotypical portrayal of Vietnamese women as promiscuous and sexually available. It proceeds on the basis of numerous formulaic categorizations, most of which reinforced the unequal social and economic power relations between American men and Vietnamese women.
Susan Jeffords, in a study of masculinization and representation of the Vietnam War, argues that "an important way to read the war, perhaps the most significant way when we think about war itself, is as a construction of gendered interests." In her discussion, Jeffords points out that "patterns of power relations established in the domination of men over women are employed to set systems of dominance over other groups as well."2 In the history of Western cinema, visual techniques have proven a durable means of constructing gendered patterns of dominance. In Girls, the male soldier's dominance over an invented version of Vietnam is emphasized by a cinematic vocabulary that reinforces the centrality of the visiting soldier over the exotic and feminized world he encounters. This willfully disconnected fantasy of visual consumption reinscribes traditional gender relations in an international context. The power of these scenes draws upon a long history of cinematic reification of a passive and sexualized female body.3
Relying on these familiar patterns, Girls reenacts the customary power structure of traditional gender relations in Western cinema within the context of Vietnam. This essay examines the effects of this ideological backdrop on the deployment of sexual-health policy. As in other wars, military efforts to address sexually transmitted disease during the Vietnam War were complicated by overlapping and competing interests aimed at enforcing a certain visual and psychological stereotype of American masculinity and soldiery. What makes Girls unique is its contemporary setting in the international and interracial context of Vietnam in the early 1970s, which is exploited to dramatic effect throughout the film. The particular anxieties associated with America's long and frustrating history of military involvement in Vietnam are transmitted, in part, through a strategy of prophylactic venereal-disease management based on instilling fear of Vietnam—and Vietnamese women—in the minds of American soldiers.
Although the official policy of the United States Department of Defense has always been "to suppress prostitution whenever possible," [End Page 67] by the time of the Vietnam War, sexual adventure with foreign women was regarded by most military leaders as an inevitable part of the modern military experience.4 The 1960s saw a general relaxation of American societal mores governing sexuality, with concomitant effects on the attitude of the personnel who...