Long Lost US Air Force Film Tells Us ‘Where Are The Girls’
Image: US Air Force screenshot.
The Airmen are just trying to play pool, but Ernie King is too excited to let them enjoy their game. “You don’t have anything better to do, I’m serious. I think so, he told his sergeant. “Here we are in sultry Southeast Asia. Land of… scented baths. And you guys are standing around the pool table. King finishes berating his fellow airmen before retreating to a brothel. Later it will burn when he pees.
We are in 1969 and the scene takes place in Vietnam. it’s from the movie Where are the girls, a long-lost military instructional video produced by the US Air Force in an effort to prevent Airmen from returning home with sexually transmitted diseases. The motherboard requested a copy from the military, who tracked it down and posted it on the National Archives website. Now anyone can see this classic piece of Cold War venereal disease propaganda, joining the select few who did it of their own free will.
Where are the girls is deeply racist and sexist, which is not shocking for the time, and also highlights an ongoing problem in the US military: the Pentagon has no idea how to talk about sex to soldiers, sailors, airmen and astronauts.
The plot of the film is quite simple. Pete Collins is a young airman serving in Vietnam. He is constantly plagued by the horny aviator King, who enjoys going to brothels, talking about brothels, and pressuring everyone around him to visit them with him. King also proudly never wears a condom.
“Do you take a bath with your shoes on?” he explains. Eventually, he exhausts Collins and the two spend a debauched night on the town where, of course, they both catch 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 got out that time…you having trouble trying to get away?” he asks Collins. “Like when you go, that, uh, doesn’t come out so well.”
It’s a farcical fate, but the worst is in store for the valiant Collins. After a family tragedy sends him home, he decides to marry his waterfront girlfriend. The two go to their doctors for blood tests (a formal requirement for marriage in some states), after which it is revealed that Collins picked up something from her one night of forbidden fun in Vietnam. “A spyrokeet, young man. You have syphilis,” the doctor says as bells ring in the background, evoking the American conception of Vietnamese music.
Worse, explains the doctor, he may have given it to his future wife. The film ends on Collin’s girlfriend’s frozen face as he explains to her that he can’t get married because he kicked her.
Where are the girls try to teach by example. King and Collins’ morality story is meant to speak for itself, and there are two moments of explicit advice given by men in positions of authority. “You are now in a strange country with strange and adorable girls…and even stranger illnesses,” an officer tells a crowd of airmen. “Venereal diseases, for example. You can retrieve them easily here. It doesn’t take long and there are five different types.
The second comes when King and Collins visit the doctor after the night at the brothel. The doc tells them both to stop fucking so much, but if they can’t help it, he insists, they should use condoms. The message comes from stern faces who obviously don’t want to have this conversation.
The US military has long tried to avoid the issue of sex, and the consequences have been devastating. It’s something people called as early as 1955. In pulp magazine War cryan author denounced the state of military sex training videos and blamed “the American attitude towards sex – a guilt and a sense of shame, perhaps – which even prevents adult military strategists from face the realities of life without fear or trembling.”
Things haven’t improved. The Air Force still produces sexual health videos, but they often feel surrealist Tim and Eric sketch. Meanwhile, the US military is no longer an all-male force and integration is not going well. A series of scandals in all branches, from tail hook for Fat Leonardshowed that the U.S. military still doesn’t know how to talk to its servicemen about sex.
Sexual assault is a epidemic in services and victims, men and women, struggle to navigate the Pentagon bureaucracy for any recognition, let alone justice. This month, Task and Purpose published a explosive expose about Marine Corps instructors sexually harassing and mocking people during formal training.
Where are the girls is a holdover from a bygone era, but it is instructive about American military culture. In the first moments of the educational film, the camera pans over Southeast Asian women walking the streets, going about their business. A cartoon rolls along with the title credits, showing a racist stereotype in skimpy clothing.
The implicit message here is clear. American servicemen serving overseas are innocent people, beset by temptation on all sides; the Other covets 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 something useful about the many other demands of military life and life in general. It’s a message that resonates in the US military to this day.