Myth America

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“O thus be it ever when free-men shall stand Between their lov’d homes and the war’s desolation…”

These possibly unfamiliar lines (they are from the last stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) express the oldest and probably the most noble motive for fighting: defense of one’s hearth and homestead. It’s true that, pragmatically speaking, modern warfare has made nonsense of this motive—ask the survivors of the London blitz, Dresden, and Hiroshima. But the motive persists, and even in a clearly offensive war the invading armies always manage to convince themselves that they are doing it for the folks back home. Especially for the women. Since the advent of the photograph, few dead soldiers have been found without pictures of one or more females tucked into a wallet. Indeed, the most famous conflict of all time, the Trojan War, began because the Trojans abducted the beauteous Helen.

There are many variations on the theme. In Aristophanes’ hit play Lysistrata the ladies of Athens stopped the fighting’by temporarily withholding their favors from their warrior friends. In ironic reversal, one would hesitate to think how many soldiers have fought hard to take a town with the knowledge that there would be compliant or, at worst, rapeable women if the assault succeeded. Certainly, however, the most universal manifestation of the basic motif has been the conviction in the mind of the ordinary soldier that he is fighting for the woman he loves. The war propagandists in every country have been well aware of this and have worked the theme industriously. The association of sex and patriotism is one of the topics taken up in a new and richly illustrated book on the image of American women, called Myth America . Compiled by Carol Wald, it will be published this month by Pantheon Books; what follows is a selection of pictures from the book.