Held in Suspension: Reflections on “After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed”

Savage Minds is delighted to present this invited book review by Lauren Cubellis, a Ph.D. student at Washington University in St. Louis.

In this engaging first book, Zoë H. Wool takes on the density of daily life after war for young veterans recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed (2015), is a timely contribution to the growing anthropological literature on precarity, ordinary ethics, and care, as well as ethnographic accounts of soldierly life and PTSD in the wake of US military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wool’s theoretical framework, of queering masculinity and experiences of the extra/ordinary, challenges long-held assumptions about violence and suffering, and masculine roles in the United States. And it trains a critical eye on the experience of ordinariness as it is both coveted by former soldiers, and persistently postponed by the complexity of their post-war existence.

Wool conducted research at Walter Reed between 2007 and 2008, where she focused on the lives of recovering soldiers and the family members who lived with them to provide help and support. Life at “Fisher House” includes a shared living space for up to two dozen soldiers and their families and features a communal kitchen, living room, patio, etc. The space is simultaneously quintessentially domestic, and not at all private. Other families, hospital representatives, and interested publics are often moving through and observing this space of military recovery. Wool spent time with the soldiers and their families, and joined them on outings to community events, to donated steak dinners, and for nights at the local bar. A key part of her research focused on how these men experience their physically changed, post-war identities in these public/private spaces, where they were often faced with contradictory demands placed on their soldier/civilian identities. All of this occurs just as the Washington Post broke the Pulitzer Prize-winning story about poor living conditions at Walter Reed, making Wool’s project especially timely in its relationship to the military establishment. Wool does not give much information about the terms and conditions of her access. This choice obscures practical details, which could prove useful in a teaching context, but her arguments remain provocative and instructive nevertheless. Her choice to focus on the lives of individual men while leaving her own deft navigation of contested space out of the story signals a particular kind of theoretical engagement, as opposed to a methodological one.

Central to this book is a problematic temporality. Time at Walter Reed is not linear, organized, or progressive, but rather fractured, compressed, and malleable. Time for the recovering soldiers is persistent in its monotony on the one hand, and ephemeral in the fleeting relationships the hospital permits on the other. In the opening chapter, Wool teases out this particular kind of lived time in her description of narrative fragments. The soldiers she talks to relay stories to her, not as any kind of direct or representative retelling, but in images, moments, and disjointed memories that make themselves felt in unexpected and seemingly unconnected instances of present. They break through, they exist in tension, conjuring a past unreconciled with the present, while simultaneously conditioning possibilities for the conceivable future. As the injured soldiers make their way along a difficult process of recovery, this fractured time corresponds to fractured bodies and the painful mediation of a permanently altered physicality.

In the following chapters, Wool details the tensions of the extra/ordinary: the pull of “thick and thin” relationships within which soldiers work to remake their personal and intimate lives in keeping with the American heteronormative nuclear family, and the public demand for returning-soldiers-as-national-heroes, that continuously interrupt this process. She traces the history of Walter Reed as a hospital space that has always sat at the intersection of these contradictory demands: at the crossroads of future-oriented recovery and unforgettable sacrifice. Outside the hospital, the soldiers are embedded in what Wool terms, “the economy of patriotism,” a space in which a grateful public thanks soldiers for their service, foisting onto them a conception of war as sacrifice which finds little resonance with their actual experiences. This gratitude suspends soldiers in their wartime roles, interrupting their desire for a civilian existence by reminding them that they are “extraordinary” in their performance of patriotic duty. The ordinary lives of these soldiers thus take on this extraordinary quality, but the “extra” is not theirs electively: their dislocated and dismembered state calls forth projections of extraordinary from those around them, whether they be intimate partners, grateful publics, or demonstrative members of state. Wool writes, “Part of the problem is that within the rehabilitative project of Walter Reed, soldiers’ attempts to frame their past, present, and future selves as ordinary are foiled by these ubiquitous declarations of their exceptionality, efforts at grateful repayment, and claims about their sacrifice” (Wool 2015: 114). The soldiers’ ordinary is rejected and publically reclaimed as extraordinary, forcing them into this state of extra/ordinary suspension.

What emerges from the text is a sense of immobility. These soldiers are stuck, not for their inability to move as they once did, though that is part of it, but rather as consequence of the futility of trying to resolve conflicting narratives about their post-war existence. Missing limbs, physical therapy, packs of medications, body ports and tubes; the maintenance of the physical self takes on a complexity and demands a degree of attention that all but eliminates any possibility for the middle class American dream of heteronormative nuclear domesticity. The irony being that the more the narrative of domesticity, gratitude, and patriotic duty is forced upon these soldiers, the more it suffocates the truly ordinary of their lives as they live them. This comes through in the text itself: Wool’s writing is relentless, and she has an evocative way of explicating contradiction such that vivid and unexpected intimacies snap into place. The reader gets the sense that its fractured, anti-narrative shape was intentionally mimetic of the extra/ordinary reality she sought to capture. The gears of war turn, within a rhetorical façade unique to date in the complex assemblage of nationalist propaganda and public sentiment. These soldiers get ground up in the middle, figuratively paralyzed in a way that finds a disconcertingly embodied parallel. Wool writes, “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” (112). This erasure, brought into flesh, permeates the extra/ordinary landscape Wool describes, and shapes the lives of soldiers in complex and contradictory ways.

This book takes on a number of multilayered and interconnected themes, the stitching holding them together being the phenomenological state of enduring, in contradictory ways, in relation to the self, the family, the military, and the state as it flows through these increasingly intimate social layers to bear on the lives of these young men. In many ways, the book is about negated futures: about futures indeterminately delayed, about futures only possible in the national imaginary, and the persistent flows of normalcy, or masculinity prescribed in hard, physical, inescapable ways that destabilize the plausible reality of “ordinary” futures in the first place. Severely injured, stuck in a care facility that simultaneously reminds them of their war-torn state even as it facilitates healing, and with a caring regimen that problematizes intimate and familiar relationships (elsewhere she and Seth Messinger have written about the contradictory placement of the intimates/family members assisting in their rehabilitation [see Medical Anthropology Quarterly 2012]), these men wait (and fight for) medical treatment to rebuild their bodies, even as they struggle to negotiate their roles in a civilian world for which they are no longer equipped. This impossible position, the otherness that the experience of war has imposed on them, becomes their ordinary. Extra/ordinary takes on another dimension.

In After War, Wool succeeds in significantly reworking notions of suffering as they are rendered in ethnographic accounts. As debates in the discipline continue to circulate about portrayals of suffering and “the anthropology of the good,” Wool gives us an account that destabilizes both of these categories, revealing a more complex assemblage that draws on contested and malleable experiences of both suffering and goodness. She argues, convincingly, that attention to the experience of these soldiers does not demand a relativizing condemnation of suffering, or the proclamation of a shared bare human-ness that makes soldiers’ experience legible and their extraordinary experience of violence problematic. Rather, it is the becoming ordinary, the living of their after war state as ordinary that must be given attention. These soldiers are caught in the tide of “thick and thin” relationships: the overwhelming experience of war, the inescapable fragility of the physical, the depth and complication of their intimate attachments, and the uncertain attainability of an ordinary future. These tensions prohibit a return to normalcy at the same time that they hold out the possibility of recovery. Lives at Walter Reed are held in suspension, and the soldiers find that it is the public insistence on their extraordinariness, and on their and suffering, that is ultimately unlivable.

Dick Powis

Dick Powis is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include men and childbirth, prenatal screening technologies, and reproductive health in urban settings in Senegal. Read more at dickpowis.com.