Image: U.S. Air Force screengrab.
The airmen are just trying to play pool, but Ernie King is too horny to let them enjoy their game. “You guys got nothing better to do, I’m serious. I mean it,” he says to his sergeant. “Here we are in sensuous Southeast Asia. Land of… scented baths. And you guys stand around shooting pool.” King finishes admonishing his fellow airmen before retreating to a brothel. Later, it’ll burn when he pees.
The year is 1969 and the scene is set in Vietnam. It’s from the film Where The Girls Are, a long-lost military instructional video produced by the U.S. Air Force in an effort to keep airmen from returning home with sexually-transmitted diseases. Motherboard requested a copy from the military, which tracked it down and posted it to the National Archives website. Now anyone can view this classic piece of Cold War venereal disease propaganda, joining the select number of people who have done so willingly.
Where The Girls Are is deeply racist and sexist, which isn’t shocking for the time, and also highlights a constant problem in the American military: The Pentagon has no idea how to talk to soldiers, sailors, airmen, and spacemen about sex.
The film’s plot is pretty simple. Pete Collins is a young airmen serving in Vietnam. He’s constantly plagued by the horny airman King, who loves to frequent brothels, talk about brothels, and peer-pressure everyone around him into visiting them with him. King also, proudly, never wears a condom.
“Do you take a bath with your shoes on?” he explains. Eventually, he wears Collins down and the two spend a debauched night on the town where they, of course, both get STIs: gonorrhea, specifically. Collins is mortified, but King is on his third shot and isn’t worried.
Later, King develops scar tissue in his urethra. “After we went out that time… you have any trouble trying to take a leak?” he asks Collins. “Like when you go, it, uh, don’t come out so good.”
It’s a grotesque fate, but worse is in store for the gallant Collins. After a family tragedy sends him home, he decides to marry his homefront girlfriend. The two go to their doctor to get blood tests (a formal requirement for marriage in some states), whereupon it’s revealed that Collins picked up something from his one night of forbidden pleasure in Vietnam. “A spyrokeet, young man. You have syphilis,” the doctor says while resonator bells play in the background, invoking America’s conception of Vietnamese music.
Worse, the doctor explains, he may have given it to his bride-to-be. The film ends on the frozen face of Collin’s girlfriend as he explains to her he can’t get married because he gave her the clap.
Where the Girls Are tries to teach by example. The morality story of King and Collins is meant to speak for itself, and there are two moments of explicit advice given by men in authority. “You’re in a strange country now with strange and lovely girls… and some even stranger diseases,” an officer explains to a crowd of airmen. “Venereal diseases, for example. You can pick them up easily out here. It doesn’t take long and there are five different kinds.”
The second comes when King and Collins visit the doctor after the night at the brothel. The doc tells both of them to stop fucking so much—but if they can’t help themselves, he insists, they should use condoms. The message comes from stern faces who, it’s obvious, don’t want to be having this conversation.
The U.S. military has long attempted to avoid the issue of sex and the consequences have been devastating. This is something people have called out as far back as 1955. In the pulp magazine Battle Cry, an author decried the state of military sexual training videos and blamed “American attitude toward sex—a gultiness and sense of shame, perhaps—which make sit impossible even for grown-up Army strategists to faced the facts of life without fear and trembling.”
Things haven’t improved. The Air Force is still producing videos about sexual health, but they often feel like surreal Tim & Eric sketches. Meanwhile, the U.S. military is no longer an all-male force, and the integration isn’t going well. A series of scandals across all branches, from Tailhook to Fat Leonard, have shown that the U.S. military still has no idea how to talk to its service members about sex.
Sexual assault is an epidemic in the services and the victims, both male and female, have an impossible time navigating the Pentagon’s bureaucracy to get any kind of acknowledgement, let alone justice. Just this month, Task and Purpose published an explosive expose about Marine Corps instructors sexually harassing and mocking people during official training.
Where the Girls Are is a relic of a bygone era, but it’s instructive about U.S. military culture. In the opening moments of the instructional film, the camera wanders over the women of Southeast Asia walking around the streets, going about their lives. A cartoon drawing unfurls with the title credits, showing a racist stereotype in skimpy clothing.
The implicit message here is clear. U.S. servicemen serving abroad are innocents, beset by temptation on all sides; the Other lusts for American money and American manhood, and offers nothing but disease. It dehumanizes everyone involved, which is perhaps useful if you want to train people to kill on command and less so if you want to teach them anything useful about the many other demands offered by military life, and life generally. It’s a message that resonates in the U.S. military to this day.