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Reviewed by:
  • After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed by Zoë H. Wool
  • Elizabeth Mesok (bio)
After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed by Zoë H. Wool. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 264pp., $89.95 hardcover, $24.95 paper.

Zoë Wool’s After War is an ethnographic exploration of the lives of severely injured soldiers in the extra/ordinary space of Fisher House, a communal home for men and their families attached to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. With incredible empathy and attention to her own positionality as a researcher residing and working among wounded soldiers, Wool follows the men and their wives, girlfriends, siblings, and parents as they are faced with extraordinary trials: having amputations and battling bone infections; relearning to walk; or adjusting to new ways of seeing which render everything dangerous and everyone an enemy. Wool also documents the more ordinary routines of these men: eating cereal in the kitchen; working on a car in the parking lot; going to a bar; watching television; or having an argument with a spouse. As Wool points out, this attention to the mundane acts of daily life is not simply the result of a methodological choice to focus on small details, but a theoretical one, driven by the messiness of bodies and lives torn apart by war, bodies and lives that are always at once both ordinary and extraordinary. Indeed, “extra/ordinary” demarks often overlapping ontological positions, out of which one comes to understand how, and who, they are to be in the world. Wool recog-nizes that neither ordinariness—“that emergent sense of being in common with others”—nor extraordinariness—“the insistence or creeping awareness that one’s life is marked by violence or exception or things that ought not to be embraced within the fold of the ordinary” are mutually exclusive classifications of events or people (8–9). This is the central tension that drives the book. While devastatingly injured soldiers are configured in the American imaginary as having made extraordinary sacrifices, as living a life unimaginable to the majority of civilians, Wool insists that these soldiers and their lives are actually in “intimate correspondence” with ordinary American life (6). While rehabili-tating in a home, which exists only because of extraordinary violence, stocked with the generic pleasures of American life and practicing the reproductive labors of domesticity, soldiers are oriented toward an ordinary future, even as the extraordinary transformation of their bodies and lives continually expose the infeasibility, and perhaps the absurdity, of such an outcome. [End Page 172]

After War is a crucial contribution to a growing body of scholarship that considers how military subjectivities are formed within, for, and by the violence of US empire. More specifically, Wool’s approach to masculinity and trauma in a postwar setting offers different theoretical approaches to sexuality and disability within the context of war-injured soldiers. For instance, Wool does not focus on the enactment of masculinity as hyperaggressive, sexualized, and violent, an analysis that broadly applies to writing on men and violence, even though the presentations of masculinity found in Fisher House are not entirely lacking such gendered characteristics. Instead, Wool approaches masculinity through the frame of reproductive personhood, not as an inherent property of the body but as a site cultivated through intimate heteronormative attachments with wives and girlfriends. Masculinity is the frame through which normative readings of the iconic soldiering body emerge: able-bodied, patriotic, suffering virtuously, and sacrificing selflessly. But it is also a “site of life-making intervention,” a vehicle forward, a chance for one to remake oneself into a sovereign, liberal individual, appropriately dependent on a caring spouse (171). In this sense, Wool argues, “masculinity is most securely refashioned not through the work of or on a body alone but through the attachment and forms of touch that make up the conjugal couple” (171). This is a crucial addition to literature on masculinity and militarism, for it does not only consider the formation of masculinity within the context of the individual soldier or among his comrades, but also through conjugal attachments, which were often quite literally life giving. Although a discussion of injured women or queer soldiers...


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pp. 172-175
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