- After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed by Zoë H. Wool
Zoe H. Wool’s book, After War, is an ethnographic study of seriously wounded soldiers and their family members as they leave battlefields in Iraq or Afghanistan and enter another, the struggle for normalcy, for ordinary lives at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007–08. This is an important area of study. Wool is a medical anthropologist at Rice University. Her purpose is to examine, understand, and interpret the lives of a few white soldiers who have lost their mobility, who live with pain and on drugs, who live with PTSD, who have lost the lives that they knew and thought they would have, and who have been made to serve as national icons, to serve in the public arena in support of war. Zoe wrote:
This book considers the national significance of the soldier body as an icon of normative masculinity, the various scales of disturbance produced when that body is injured, and the awkwardness and discomfort that arise when soldiers’ quotidian efforts to live on in the after-war collide with the myth-laden post 9/11 public imaginary of them(3).
Wool’s book is organized into five chapters. The introduction discusses the methodology. Chapter 1, “The Extra/ordinary Atmosphere of Walter Reed,” focuses on humanity, the actual lives of a few badly wounded soldiers, how they survive, persevere, interact with family and their surroundings, and struggle with extraordinary circumstances. Chapter 2, “A Present History of Fragments,” traces a bit of the history of Walter Reed Hospital, which was built in 1908 and has served the nation through two World Wars, the Cold War, and GWOT. She noted that: “It [Walter Reed] is a site of powerful acts, a place where notable people perform certain kinds of national magic, binding a nation to war through public intimacies. It is a public theater in which notions of national masculinity, patriotism, and moral debt are dramatized with each flash bulb, sound bite, and stroke of the pen” (94). Chapter 3, “The Economy of Patriotism,” is the most significant and interesting chapter. Americans tend to believe soldiers fight and sacrifice for the preservation of the American way of life and to help other people achieve independence. Wool’s examines this relationship: “The subjects and objects and acts of sacrifice that produce these national debts of gratitude remain unspecified. There were necessary omissions, [End Page 90] implicit and necessary fictions that support expressions of thanks and claims of sacrifice” (107). The relationship between soldiers and the nation is, in part, a fiction. Soldiers did not volunteer for service to sacrifice, they saw their work as a “job” and most were wounded not charging the hill, in an intentional act of heroism, but riding in vehicles. As a consequence of this fiction, all of the gratitude and gifts heaped on wounded soldiers is seen, by some, as a form of charity. Chapter 4, “On Movement,” examines the “multiple experiences of transformation” wounded soldiers have to make. Wool also takes a look at PTSD. How soldiers suffering from PTSD act in the world, and their movement towards recovery. Chapter 5, “Intimate Attachments and the Securing of Life,” examines the many connections that keep wounded soldiers alive. The concerns are not just death from the physical trauma suffered in war but also from suicide.
Important themes that run through this book are: how difficult it is for wounded soldiers to do routine things such as getting in a car; the negotiations that take place between doctors and soldiers about whether to save or amputate a limb; the ways that the taking of drugs impedes ordinary life; the relationships between wounded soldiers, their wounded buddies, their wives, and other family members; the relationship between wounded soldiers and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the U.S. Government that pays soldiers for lost limbs; and the relationship between the American people and wounded soldiers as one of sacrifice and gratitude. This book has two audiences. It...