Journal of World History 14.1 (2003) 98-100
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Disabled Veterans in History. Edited by DAVID A. GERBER. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.348 pp. $49.50 (cloth).
This is the fifth book in the series Corporealities: Discourses of Disability, edited by David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder. Unlike the previous works, which have a more recent focus, this book must wrestle with the fact that, as editor David Gerber states, "Disabled veteransare neglected figures in the history of war and peace, and the historical scholarship about them at present is fragmentary." Even that is probably an understatement. The fact of the matter, as Gerber points out, is that there are barely any works in the field of history that deal exclusively with disabled veterans.
This lack of previous publications (and the attendant lack of a large group of historians that work on this topic) may be why Gerber was forced to take a more multidisciplinary approach in his collection of historical contributors. The work is subdivided into three parts: Representation, Public Policy, and Living with a Disability: Adjustments and Maladjustments. Within this framework, the thirteen other authors and historians fit nicely, though as one might expect from a subject dealing with hierarchical organizations, power, and the body, the dead hand of Michael Foucault rests heavily on several of the selections. Not all of the works, however, are historical. Some blur the line between conventional history and social critique (and in one case art history) but the overall effect is pleasant and enlightening, something unique to this book as opposed to many other collections that attempt to fuse disparate fields. [End Page 98]
In the first section, three authors, Gerber included among them, present essays dealing with how the disabled veteran has appeared in art and movies. Although this method may appear ahistorical at first glance, two of the essays dealing with Hollywood in particular do a good job of examining and exposing shifts in public perceptions through the lens of the Hollywood director. One author, in dealing with the post-Vietnam treatment of veterans, made an especially interesting observation. Martin F. Norden relates,
"The filmmakers, in their rewriting of U.S. history from the 1960s onward, chose to minimize or negate the long-standing place of war within the American national identity. By absolving the general populace of blame and concomitantly pinning the Vietnam War on a few self-destructive and 'Otherized' soldiers—to make them bear, in Quart and Auster's words, 'the stigma of guilt for the whole society'—the filmmakers turned their historical revisionism into a denial of massive proportions. Their basic attitude towards the veterans, which can be summarized as 'blame and then save the wayward victims,' is unsettling to say the least. . ." (p. 108)
The second section, "Public Policy," is the largest and the essays range from Early Modern England through the Napoleonic era to the American Civil War and the plight of former soldiers of the Soviet Union wounded in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Each essay generally conforms to the same idea that veterans are entitled to support from the state by virtue of their experience as soldiers. This does not mean that the veterans were uniformly successful in their appeals. Sometimes, especially for the half of veterans on the side that lost, the infrastructure of the state no longer exists, or is in no condition to provide more than minimal support, as was the case for both the post-Civil War former confederate soldier and the post-World War German soldier.
The final section, "Living with a Disability," is only marginally different from the second, as it seems that the division here is one more of the length of the scope of time dealt with in each essay. All three essays here are also solid, but if one stands out it is Geoffrey L. Hudson's fascinating study, "Disabled Veterans and the State in Early Modern Europe." If disabled veterans are difficult to find in the modern era, Hudson's excellent scholarship in this essay makes it look simple to do...