- New book explores romantic life in wartime, how and why relationships break down, and the consequences for men and women in uniform, through the phenomenon of the “Dear John” letter, that most notorious of wartime missives.
- Professor Susan L Carruthers listened to hundreds of hours of oral testimony from veterans of 20th century and 21st century wars to understand the stories men told each other about these break-up notes.
- While the book focuses on the Dear John in the US military, its themes of love, loss, loyalty, disloyalty and betrayal are universal.
“Mail and morale march in lockstep,” writes Professor Susan L Carruthers in the introduction to her new book, Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America. Writing letters to a spouse or sweetheart deployed overseas was portrayed as a patriotic duty, a means to boost the morale of the fighting man. Agony aunts and military chaplains gave stern advice on topics to avoid in order that the soldier not be distracted from his – for it was almost always his – professional duties.
But what of the letter that broke off an engagement, or announced the intention to file for divorce? During World War II such letters became known as “Dear Johns,” and the women who sent them denounced as traitors, a “fifth column,” deserving to be shot at dawn.
In Dear John historian Susan L. Carruthers details the history of the “Dear John” letter and explores wartime relationships and breakdowns from multiple perspectives—civilian and military, male and female, historical and contemporary. Using a broad range of research and sources, including personal letters, declassified documents, press reports, psychiatric literature, movies, and popular music, Carruthers also shows how the armed forces and civilian society have attempted to weaponize romantic love in pursuit of martial ends, from World War II through Korea and Vietnam to today’s “forever wars” in the Middle East.
Professor Carruthers highlights the expectations placed on women to do the emotional labour of sustaining intimacy across miles and years of absence, and challenges the allocation of blame when some of those relationships broke down.
She said: “I’d like readers to come away with a more textured appreciation of how hard it is to stay connected in a healthy, happy, mutually satisfying romantic relationship where one or both parties are deployed far from home, in situations that involve severe danger.
“There is so much complexity here and we owe it to those women who have written letters – whether to sustain relationships or end them – to appreciate how hard that is, across all of these conflicts and through all the changes in technology.”
Incorporating vivid personal experiences in lively and engaging prose—variously tragic, comic, and everything in between—this compelling study brings wartime relationships to a new audience.
Topics covered in Dear John include:
- Who “wrote” the Dear John?: Most of what we know about Dear Johns comes from what men have had to say about women’s break-up notes. In a very real sense, it’s true to say that men invented the “Dear John” and authored apocryphal specimens in hugely different styles. Rather than seeing the “Dear John” as a female epistolary genre, we should think of it more as a male oral tradition. So, although Dear John is about women’s letter-writing, it’s also very much about men’s story-telling.
- New media: DEAR JOHN explores the role of constantly changing technologies in both facilitating intimacy and undermining it in wartime. Has the digital era made it harder or easier to endure separation caused by deployment? And how persuasive is the widely shared view that bad news cuts deeper the faster it arrives—that an electronic Dear John is more damaging than one delivered by mail?
- Breakups and breakdowns: The connection between the failure of intimate relationships (particularly as heralded by “Dear John” letters) and suicide has repeatedly surfaced in the news—and in military studies—over the past decade. DEAR JOHN challenges received wisdom on this topic, arguing that we need to better understand the pressures on intimate relationships caused by war and preparation for deployment, rather than blaming women for severing romantic ties.
Professor Carruthers added, “Making romantic intimacy serve the cause of victory has never been straightforward for the military. Nor has making love work in wartime been simple for individuals and couples. The reasons why can be discerned by reading the subtexts and contexts of ‘Dear John’ letters, and by listening attentively to what men and women have had to say about the fragility of love at war.”
- Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America is published by Cambridge University Press Online ISBN:9781108913867 DOI:https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108913867
ABOUT SUSAN CARRUTHERS
Susan L. Carruthers is Professor of US and International History, University of Warwick. The author of six books, including The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace, she taught for fifteen years at Rutgers University-Newark, and has held visiting fellowships at Harvard, Princeton, and the Woodrow Wilson Center. She was a finalist for the 2017 PEN Hessell-Tiltman prize.
REVIEWS FOR DEAR JOHN
“Carruthers makes a convincing case that the Dear John letter has helped make women, not war, the culprit for love's breakdown under pressure.”
- Charlotte Gray, The Wall Street Journal
“An eye-opening study of wartime romances and breakups...Flashes of wit enliven Carruthers’...prose, and she makes a persuasive case that the culture of the ‘Dear John’ letter has ‘helped make women, not war, the culprit for love’s breakdown under pressure.’ This feminist study sheds new light on an age-old topic.”
— Publishers Weekly
“Whether distraught, amused, or enraged, jilted GIs have long bonded as victims of betrayal. Susan L. Carruthers’s marvellously written new book not only explores the origin and evolution of the 'Dear John' letter, but illuminates the misogyny that often underlies this military brotherhood, the alleged correlation with suicide, and the impact on the writers of these infamous epistles.”
— Brian McAllister Linn, author of Elvis's Army: Cold War GIs and the Atomic Battlefield
“Susan L. Carruthers is an eloquent storyteller. She exposes not only the poignancy of love in times of war, but also how perceptions of girlfriends and wives as ‘flight risks’ become powerful stimuli to male solidarity. A captivating history.”
— Joanna Bourke, author of War and Art: A Visual History of Modern Conflict
“This fast-moving journey through a century of soldiers’ heartbreak and rage at being dumped by their sweethearts reveals the psychological distance between the home front and the war theater, but even more tellingly illuminates the eternal war between men and women.”
—Nancy F. Cott, author of Fighting Words: The Brave American Journalists Who Brought the World Home between the Wars
“Dear John is, dare I say, a pleasure to read, in addition to being incisive regarding the gendering and biases built around the mythopoeia of the epistolary breakup. Carruthers's multidimensional interrogation of the wartime brushoff encompasses fictions, reality, sexual orientation, POWs, social media, and all manner of telling the loved one So long, see you never. This learned and relevant treatment is a unique and deeply researched addition to the literature of broken hearts.”
— Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles
Media Relations Manager
University of Warwick