John M. Kinder. Paying with Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2015. viii + 358 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-21009-4; $20.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-42071-4.
Reviewed by Meghan Fitzpatrick (Royal Military College of Canada)
Published on H-War (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
John M. Kinder’s Paying with Their Bodies examines the history of war and disability in the United States from the Civil War to the present. By tracing the “cultural history of disabled veterans,” Kinder hopes to contextualize current debate and reshape the way that Americans understand their own national history of conflict (p. 3). The author also maintains that the injured and disabled have not received their due in traditional works of military history. In Paying with Their Bodies, he attempts to redress this omission.
Throughout the book, Kinder deftly teases out the complexities embedded in narratives of war and disability. In addition, he explores how the figure of the disabled veteran was employed to galvanize public opinion on both sides of the political spectrum. From a theoretical standpoint, he argues that disability is a “social construction” or the “product of interconnected government policies, societal arrangements and public institutions” (p. 7). Consequently, the disabled veteran is a subject of equal admiration and anxiety, an object of ridicule and remembrance. For example, both veterans’ groups and the antiwar movement used images of disability as an illustrative device and a means to further their own cause.
Following the First World War, the US government started to develop a formal rehabilitation system for disabled veterans. Despite a rocky start, the Veterans Administration (VA) grew into a vast bureaucracy that continues to dominate the lives of wounded American soldiers today. Shaped by contemporary ideals of masculinity and citizenship, the rehabilitation process was designed to help ex-service personnel return to the workforce and achieve economic independence. Although Kinder is careful to offer a balanced appraisal, he concludes that inefficiency and excessive bureaucracy plagued the system in the first years of its history. In addition, pervasive racism and cultural stereotypes informed early intelligence testing and vocational placement schemes.
Paying with Their Bodies joins a growing collection of English-language literature on the history of war and disability. This book builds on the work of such critical scholars as Julie Anderson (War, Disability and Rehabilitation in Britain: “Soul of a Nation” ), Deborah Cohen (The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939 ), Jeffrey S. Reznick (Healing the Nation: Soldiers and the Culture of Caregiving in Britain during the Great War ), Ana Carden Coyne (The Politics of Wounds: Military Patients and Medical Power in the First World War ), and Marina Larsson (Shattered Anzacs: Living with the Scars of War ). As Kinder rightly points out, this subject has received far greater attention in Europe and the Commonwealth. Having said that, he is not alone in his efforts to highlight experiences of disability in the United States. In her 2011 book, War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America, historian Beth Linker similarly outlines the origins of the American VA system and interrogates modern paradigms of rehabilitation. Kinder ambitiously extends her work by mapping out the changing cultural narratives surrounding disability up to the present. Furthermore, he addresses the experiences of both the physically and psychologically injured. While Kinder cannot possibly explore every avenue of inquiry, his book will be an important starting point for other historians.
Paying with Their Bodies is a fascinating, elegantly written, and tightly argued book. What is more, it presents provocative arguments about the consequences of war. For instance, Kinder maintains that the American public has grown increasingly casualty averse since the end of the Second World War. In response, policymakers abandoned the draft and adopted a “limited liability model of citizenship,” whereby the burden of military service falls on a smaller group (p. 282). These individuals invariably come from disadvantaged backgrounds and minority populations. The book also explores the fantasy that the United States can act as a military superpower without incurring bodily cost and that Americans will reject military action when they see the risks inherent to conflict. Despite the severe toll of recent deployments, Kinder concludes that Americans continue to believe firmly in the use of military might and in the power of technology and medicine to alleviate disability. This problem has only worsened with the professionalization of the armed forces and a decline in the number of Americans directly engaged in combat.
Most interestingly, Kinder calls for a new Veteranology or the “development of an interdisciplinary body of research on disabled veterans” (pp. 298-299). In light of recent deployments to the Middle East, the study of military health and welfare is already a burgeoning field internationally. It will undoubtedly continue to grow as a new generation of veterans emerge. As Kinder points out, scholars from across the disciplinary spectrum and policymakers need to ask complicated questions about trauma, how we measure it, and the values that shape how we address it. After all, trauma remains an unavoidable if painful part of the human experience.
. Other relevant titles include David A. Gerber, ed., Disabled Veterans in History (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2000); Fiona Reid, Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914-1930 (London: Continuum, 2010); and Emily Mayhew, Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
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Meghan Fitzpatrick. Review of Kinder, John M., Paying with Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran.
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