Thursday, July 16, 2015

What We're Reading: The Disabled Veteran

Paying with Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran by John M. Kinder

This book is an examination of the place of the disabled veteran in American history. Kinder shows us that how the nation has viewed the disabled veteran at different times in its history has been largely contingent on varying social, economic, and political contexts. He examines disability, and in particular the disability of veterans, as a social construct, and argues that beneath all these various constructs and period nuances, the essential “problem” remains: However it is framed, and whether it is hidden or prominent in public discourse, the fact remains that wars rend bodies, and wounded and permanently disabled soldiers must be cared for long term by their country.

This is not a survey of the plight of disabled veterans after each major conflict in American history. While there is some discussion of 19th-century American disabled veterans, and also some about disabled veterans from World War II to the present day, most of Paying with Their Bodies is about disabled veterans of World War I: how they were viewed and how they were treated in the years between the world wars. It is in the conflicting cultural and political fights surrounding veterans of World War I that Kinder believes that the “Problem of the Disabled Veteran” received its greatest attention--and lasting recognition--as a national issue. It was during this time that issues and constructions emerged that remain familiar to us today: the growth of a massive federal bureaucracy to assist veterans; the fights over claims and compensation; scandals about conditions of care; the social place of disabled veterans in American society; and the seemingly now inextricable entanglement of the disabled veteran with American politics. A permanent tension seemed to be formalized in these years, one that posed a conflict between the image of the neglected and forgotten veteran and a government reluctant to deliver on its promise to meet his needs and honor his sacrifice on behalf of the nation.

This is the time, in 1921, that the United States Veterans’ Bureau was established, consolidating a number of Federal veterans’ service departments that had a reputation for inefficiency, rampant waste and fraud. Veterans may be interested, but perhaps not surprised, to learn it got off to a rocky start with massive waste and graft. Its first director, Charles Forbes, ended up spending a year in Leavenworth. The VFW, the American Legion, and Disabled American Veterans of the World War (DAV) were also formed in the aftermath of World War I and played a major role in advocacy for disabled veterans. Kinder gives us an interesting overview of the nature and agenda of each of these organizations.

In the movie Gold Diggers of 1933, actress Joan Blondell (center) exhorts the
audience to remember the Great War soldiers who became the
Forgotten Men of the Great Depression.
The author identifies two visions of armed conflict that circulated widely in American culture just prior to World War I, ideas about war that he calls Progressive era militarism. Influenced by the relative ease of the fighting in the Spanish American War late in the 19th century, both of them were optimistic concerning personal physical damage, “One minimized future traumas and portrayed modern warfare as a path to physical and spiritual regeneration. The other predicted modern war would soon become so destructive it would be impossible to pursue in good faith.” He quotes one Spanish American war reporter explaining the virtues of modern weaponry: “The man who is struck receives a clean-cut wound which, while it disables him for fighting, heals quickly and leaves him in a few weeks as sound as new.” The nation’s imperial ambitions might be realized without war or at the most with minimal (and remediable) damage to the bodies of its soldiers.

This exhibit poster by the Red Cross portrays bedside
occupational therapy as the first step in returning
disabled veterans to a state of "usefulness."

The federally sponsored “Rehabilitation Movement” for Great War disabled veterans was born of this optimism, believing it was possible to ameliorate the physical cost of war to soldiers as well as minimize the long-term financial costs of the disabled veteran to the American economy. In part it was a reaction to the costs and extended dependency of disabled Civil War veterans whose disability pensions had become a huge federal financial burden as well as a source of scandal. The Rehabilitation Movement sought to reintegrate disabled veterans into civilian society as soon as possible, to address the problem in in a scientific and technocratic way, to de-veteranize and de-mythologize the wounded soldier.

Some veterans (and citizens) saw the movement in a more cynical light. They believed that the national rehabilitation movement was designed as a prophylactic against veterans identifying themselves as a group with particular political interests and organizing to lobby on their own behalf, that in the guise of offering real help to the disabled veteran its ulterior motive was to make war not only more socially palatable but also easier to pursue---and leave behind. In the case of World War I, as has ever been the case, the country at the end of a war wants to forget and move on, to return--as Woodrow Wilson’s successor Warren Harding promised--to “normalcy.” The disabled veteran is a constant and long-term reminder of the last conflict, and his need for care, his demand not to be forgotten, must breast the tide of national forgetting.

One of the most controversial ads of the 1930s was
run by World Peaceways, an organization that con-
ducted an anti-imperialist anti-war campaign that
described soliders as pawns in the corrupt ambitions
of the rich and powerful.

Whatever its real motives might have been, the practical success for individual veterans of the “Rehabilitation Movement” was uneven. It reflected, however, the cultural values of the time, where long term disability and dependence were seen as the antithesis of manly virtues. The obligation of the government to its disabled veterans was to offer them the tools, such as medical care and vocational training, to reintegrate themselves back into society as independent and self-reliant citizens. It was a goal presented as so attainable and universal that, as some argued, the “only hopeless cripple is a deliberate shirker.” This was a deliberate de-valorization of war injury in service of presenting a view of modern war as having remediable physical costs. Veterans' organizations were of course uneasy about how this defined the place of the disabled American veteran in American society, of what implications it had for the nation meeting the long-term needs of disabled veterans and, ultimately, for the valuation of their service and their injuries. The interwar “Peace Movement” also de-valorized war injury, using (rather ruthlessly, it would seem) graphic images of nameless maimed and disfigured soldiers in its campaigns, implying that the disabilities of soldiers had occurred not for some patriotic or glorious cause but in service to the narrow economic interest of others.

A photo op for the White House. Christian Bagge lost parts
of both of his legs in Iraq. In June 2005 he jogged with George
Bush. What did the White House hope the image would say?
Probably not the same thing as Bagge had in mind. For his
Purple Heart ceremony the military asked him to wear long pants.
He showed up in shorts.
What seems to remain constant is that the disabled veteran always finds himself enmeshed in the battles that rage over issues of war and peace, forced to fight for his own identity as others try to define that identity in service of their own political agendas--agendas that have little focus on the practical care of the disabled veteran but that nevertheless have important implications for how he is cared for, how he is honored, and the meaning of his sacrifice. Kinder feels that what lies at the base of this frustrating dynamic shaping our attitudes about “The Problem of the Disabled Veteran” is our national unwillingness to disabuse ourselves of two major fantasies: “...the fantasy that the United States can remain a global military power without incurring the social, economic, and physical consequences associated with veterans’ disabilities; and the fantasy that Americans will permanently reject war because of the risks to soldiers’ bodies and minds.”

We are still in thrall to these fantasies. Modern drone warfare is promoted as an effective means of pursuing war at reduced risk of physical injury to soldiers. After every military misadventure we are sure that we will reject going down that road again. But we have done away with conscription, and now contract wars out to a volunteer army. It is a distancing that, ironically, makes military interventions--and their consequent injuries--even more likely. Policymakers can act without having to develop the depth of popular support for military action that would be necessary if more citizens had a greater personal risk of death and injury fighting the wars that are conducted in their name. Since we have come to view military service these days as more of a career choice than an obligation of citizenship, the danger for modern disabled soldiers is that the injuries they incur in serving their country will come to be seen as just any other form of casualty. Paying with Their Bodies reminds us that we have to consider the inescapable damage to the bodies and minds of soldiers, and the real and unfungible costs of caring for them, in the decisions we make as a nation about war
and peace.  

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for the generous review. I hope Burbank readers enjoy the book and find in enlightening. Perhaps one day I'll have an opportunity to stop by the Burbank Library and thank you in person. Best, John Kinder