By John Kinder
How do wounded soldiers shape Americans’ views of their nation and themselves?
Few people know that you can find one of the cheapest meals in Washington, D.C. at the Walter Reed Medical Center. The cafeteria is subsidized—an acknowledgment, if only slight, of the economic hardships facing many military families. I made this discovery in fall 2004 while conducting research at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, a trove of surgical photographs, tissue samples, and medical paraphernalia in a quiet sector of Walter Reed’s sprawling campus. Munching away on my veggie burger, I tried not to stare at my fellow diners—amputees wearing bathrobes, college-age boys in wheelchairs, all recent casualties of the U.S. war on “terror.”
Eighty-five years earlier, in the aftermath of another fatally idealistic crusade, men with similar injuries had arrived at Walter Reed by the thousands. Following the Great War, the hospital had served as the nation’s premiere military rehabilitation center. Today, on the brink of closure, it continues to prepare war-mangled troops for a life after injury.
My dissertation, “Encountering Injury: Modern War and the ‘Problem of the Wounded Soldier,’” tells the story of earlier generations of wounded warriors, men whose bodies bore the scars of America’s wars. My research spans the 75 years between the Civil War and World War II, but focus primarily on the World War I era, when physicians, social critics, veterans’ groups, and antiwar activists grappled with what became known as the “problem of the wounded soldier,” a debate about the social, economic, and cultural legacies of war injury.
The “problem of the wounded soldier” was inspired, in part, by changing realities on the battlefield: thanks to advances in emergency medicine, men who would have died in previous campaigns now survived, although often with life-shattering disabilities. For many observers, it was unclear how hundreds of thousands of permanently injured men could be reabsorbed into postwar American society. At the same time, the “problem of the wounded soldier” was the product of culture-wide anxieties about the nature of modern warfare, the United States’s future as a military power, and the nation’s obligations to those who suffer in its name. In the minds of countless Americans, the Great War’s production of injured bodies and minds was evidence that modern war needed to be abandoned altogether.
Researching the lingering effects of war injury has forced me to move beyond the boundaries of traditional “military history.” I draw insights from many disciplines, including the history of medicine, the history of popular culture, and the burgeoning field of disability studies. Like many cultural historians of warfare, I believe that the consequences of military power cannot be separated from the ideas and images that give war meaning. War’s violence is never relegated to soldiers’ bodies alone. It lives on in the language we speak, the stories we remember, the metaphors we use to organize the world.
Although my interest in wounded and disabled soldiers is hardly autobiographical, I can admit to a lifelong fascination with war. As a child, I was enthralled by the stories my best friend’s father, a Vietnam War vet, would tell of his combat experience, and I can recall some half-formed notions of bravely charging into enemy fire myself. During the Gulf War, however, I had a change of heart. Watching television coverage of the destruction—Baghdad silhouettes lit up like Fourth of July, TV generals chuckling proudly at the sight of charred Iraqi soldiers—I began to reevaluate my attraction to war. I also began to think more carefully about war’s legacies—not only for combatants and their loved ones but also for those, like me, who watch safely from afar. How have wars shaped Americans’ views of their nation and themselves? And in what ways do we continue to live with past wars, both “good” ones and “bad” ones?
Studying the “problem of the wounded soldier” allows me a unique insight into these very questions. In my research, I have made some remarkable finds—government films preaching the gospel of “war risk insurance,” diaries of frontline nurses, children’s posters detailing war’s brutality.
Yet I always return to the disabled soldiers themselves, men like those arriving daily at Walter Reed. Their enfeebled bodies, their wounds and illnesses, their dreams and nightmares, their speeches and drawings, their struggles to remake their lives—all constitute a record of U.S. war-making, one that continues to be written long after the guns fall silent.
Ph.D. student John Kinder, shown here at the VFW Club in Mendota, has published several articles and book reviews on the cultural history of American warfare.
His essay “Iconography of Injury” will be included in Picture This! Reading World War I Posters (U of Nebraska Press, 2006).