Here in the US, it’s Veteran’s Day (in Canada it’s Remembrance Day, in England it’s Armistice Day, and it’s worth thinking about what those differences mean). The utterance you’re most likely to hear is “thank you for your service.” As an anthropologist who works with injured soldiers and their families, that has become one of my least favorite utterances (I’m hardly alone). This year, thanks to a provocation from my new institutional home, I find myself particularly committed to getting us to think about the experiences, and the violence, that well meaning platitude erases. To help us do that, here is an excerpt from my new book, After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed.
One summer night James and I stand smoking near McGinty’s small patio that spreads across the sidewalk, his two prosthetic legs protruding from his khaki-colored cargo shorts. They catch the eye of a middle-aged man, slightly drunk and ambling along with a few friends. He stops and turns to us, ribbing James by asking, “What happened to your feet?” James replies with one word and a slightly smug smile: “Bomb.” The man, still standing there in front of us, unignorably close although he ignores me entirely, nods slowly with sincerity and says, “I believe it. Thanks, thank you for what you do.” Then he moves along and rejoins his waiting friends.
We go back to our cigarettes and conversation, but whatever ease or unselfconsciousness or ordinary sense of being in common James might have had upstairs at McGinty’s has been perforated by that sentiment and its implicit fictions. An encounter that begins with a recognition of the glinting traces of horrible violence and pain, traces that James makes more present with his one chosen word, bomb, are unspoken and perhaps unspeakable within this frame of gratitude. Instead they are spoken as a conspicuous vagueness: “Thanks, thank you for what you do.”
Like countless other exchanges, this is simultaneously an encounter with an actual soldier and with the figure of the soldier and his generic heroism rooted in generically worthy experiences full of acts of violence about which one need not think too hard. In such a passing encounter it is hard to see much specificity in the recognition implied by “Thank you for what you do.” When he is interpolated as a figure with only generic content, the acts of violence that involve James become inscrutable, even though it is the specific presence of his absent legs that provoked this man’s sentiment. This paradox of such grateful encounters is part of what makes them so uncomfortable. And although James becomes habituated to their ubiquity, there remains something troubling about being nominated as a willing sacrificial victim on behalf of the nation and being thanked for it.
The exchanges involved in these grateful encounters are hopelessly lopsided. In place of the social logics of exchange that can make or thicken social selves, there is a flattened figure, an unpayable debt of gratitude that hasn’t been incurred, and an expression of sentiments that have little to do with the unspoken and unqueried tasks of war or acts of violence that had seemed more like the workplace injuries of a life-or-death job than patriotic sacrifices.
Peter was a good-looking nineteen-year-old, though he occasionally insisted he had lost too much weight since it had happened. So he ate a lot, mostly cereal. He was eating a bowl of cereal at the counter in the Fisher House kitchen when the man from the VA walked in with suited entourage in tow. Until then it had been a pretty boring day. Peter and I had been killing time in the kitchen, chatting with Alec. The unique topography of Alec’s leg was on display within the cage of its ExFix; its shades of pink and red and the tell-tale grid pattern of a skin graft, like someone squeezing it too tight with a hairnet, evidenced not only injury but multiple surgeries and lingering infection. Peter’s wrist was still bandaged from the surgery to set its broken bones. His leg was still healing from amputation surgery, so he wasn’t yet using his prosthetic.
The man from the VA and his entourage were led into the kitchen by the Fisher House manager, who was giving them the standard tour. As usual, she stopped and opened the gleaming, stainless-steel refrigerator doors, explaining the system by which we differentiated the donated food from the food individual families bought for themselves. The group nodded a tad too earnestly in appreciation. The man from the VA came over to the counter where Peter, Alec, and I sat. He asked Peter if he could ask him some questions. Peter agreed. Even though Peter hadn’t been at Walter Reed long, he recognized this as an ordinary task, taking a break from his cereal so that some guy in a suit could ask him questions in front of a group of onlookers.
The man briefly introduced himself, saying that he was from a large Midwestern VA hospital, and then quickly asked, “Where you from, and where were you hurt?” Peter replied, “Iraq.” The rest of the group, now clearly constituting an audience, stood back by the refrigerator and watched. The man tried to elicit some elaboration: “And?” There was a silence that details of Peter’s injury or recovery were expected to fill. Instead Peter raised the remaining stump of his leg—his residual limb—and pointed to it with his milky spoon, giving a quick definitive nod of his head and saying nothing. The man from the VA tried again, asking, “But how are you doing?” Peter’s response was as sarcastic as it was brief: “I’m fine.”
The man from the VA finally seemed to take the hint. He tried to close the awkward interaction, smiling politely and saying, “Well, you’re fighting for our freedom, so thank you for your service.” But before he could move on to Alec, Peter jumped in: “And your job.” He said, “If we didn’t get blown up, you wouldn’t have a job.” A nervous laughter rippled through the group of onlookers in the pause that followed. The man from the VA replied, “Well, yes, we prefer if you didn’t get blown up.” He quickly turned to Alec, shaking his hand, asking him the same questions, and listening to his more accommodating answers. “I’m not actually a soldier,” Alec joked. “I just followed the free food in here.”
While visits from celebrities and VIPs were ubiquitous at Walter Reed, such blatant calling out of the problem of gratitude and imputation of sacrifice was by no means typical. In this context, behaving like Peter wasn’t just rude; it could get him labeled as crazy, as unable to deal with his PTSD, as ungrateful or unpatriotic, which was perhaps worse since, although soldiers disavowed any special patriotism, to be labeled by others as unpatriotic called into question one’s loyalty and devotion to one’s fellow soldiers, not just the country, and that cut soldiers to the quick. Behaving as Peter did would also wear on a soldier’s connections to the vast network of resources—from free dinners to free laptops to free houses—which folks like the man from the VA were part of.
While it is exceptional, this interaction encapsulates the tropes and traps of sacrifice and gratitude within which Peter and his comrades were entangled. And though the man from the VA didn’t explicitly refer to Peter’s “sacrifice,” the frame of sacrifice is so ubiquitous as to make service virtually synonymous with sacrifice at Walter Reed. The very present absence of Peter’s leg, the small American flags stuck in his wheelchair (part of what he referred to as his “crazy vet” look), the man from the VA who made this pilgrimage to see and touch and thank the soldiers who have given or lost or had taken from them bits of their bodies, minds, and selves—all of this is articulated in claims about soldiers as sacrificial victims.
In this context sacrifice is tangled up with relations of debt, but it is the debtors, that is, the volunteers, visitors, and war and troop boosters, who insist on this debt. It is they who insist that they owe things to soldiers. It is they who claim that soldiers have sacrificed on their behalf, and they do their best to pay the unpayable debt of sacrifice. The soldier is rendered a sacrificial victim not because of some essential quality he has or because of the circumstances through which his body has been dismembered. He is rendered sacrificial because others claim his pain, his death, his loss in their own name. He is their sacrificial victim; there is little he can do to be otherwise.
Yet, in making that claim, the grateful elide that same violence, the same pain and death and loss, on which is it based. Gratitude sanitizes the gory implications of sacrifice, leaving in its stead a clean picture of patriotism. The visceral pinkness of raw flesh is displaced by the glossy thickness of blue blood. During the encounter with the man from the VA, the gesture of Peter’s amputated leg is not enough to make this absurdity clear. When his gesture is met with thanks for his service on behalf of the ideal of freedom, Peter insists on reinserting his suffering into the exchange in a way that breaches the safe, hygienic frames of both abstract patriotic gratitude (“You’re fighting for our freedom, so thank you for your service”) and the depoliticizing frame of employment (“If we didn’t get blown up, you wouldn’t have a job”). Soldiers’ work is violent and deadly. In gratitude, civilians shake hands, make signs, and knit blankets; they give away laptops and build houses; they arrange dinners and trips to Disneyland. Their insistence on soldiers’ extraordinariness ironically ignores those violent extras that always append soldiers’ ordinaries. To Peter, in that moment in the Fisher House kitchen, it seems ridiculous, so into the generalizing expression of gratitude he inserts the ugly facts of his particular body in pain.
You can read the book’s introduction here.