It is the business of soldiers to be killed, and the job of civilians to be grateful for their human sacrifice, because that’s the way God wants it, or so we have been told by famous generals, patriotic politicians, war profiteers and public relations firms under contract to the Pentagon.
But American wars have produced masses of other, far more troublesome soldiers who instead came home with crippling physical and mental wounds. They are the subject of Paying With Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran, a valuable history by John M. Kinder. His concern is not the multiple problems of individual disabled vets, but the capitalized Problem they collectively present to U.S. policymakers.
Kinder, a professor of American studies and history at Oklahoma State University, focuses his book on World War I and hopes to elevate disabled veterans to the center of our thinking about warfare — to “reshape the way Americans think about the nation’s history of war.” Consider this: when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, it was still paying pensions to Union veterans of the Civil War that ended in 1865. It stopped paying benefits to veterans of World War I only in 2007, in the midst of the post- 9/11 wars. And when wounded soldiers were shipped home from Afghanistan, VA hospitals were still filled with vets “rehabilitating” from the war in Vietnam. The overlap reveals an unacknowledged truth about American war: it is never over.
During the 18 months American soldiers fought in World War I, 53,000 were killed, and 63,000 died of infectious diseases. Another 224,000 were wounded in combat, and more than 200,000 were permanently disabled. What was to become of them? Who was to be responsible for them? Who was to bear the expense? And what were civilians to think of them? Did a wounded soldier count as a sacrifice — or a burden on the society that had sent him to war?
The answers to these questions, Kinder argues, placed disabled veterans at the center of two competing visions of warfare and established policies and patterns that are with us today. The dominant vision “imagined the disabled veteran — and his successful reintegration into postwar society — as an index of the United States’ ability to enter the global arena and return home functionally, if not aesthetically, unscathed.” It produced a soldiers’ rehabilitation movement — “a massive campaign to ‘salvage’ the nation’s war-wounded and erase the painful memory of war from the American body politic”— and it has served, Kinder notes, as the backbone of disabled veterans policy since.
The competing vision, which Kinder describes as rooted in Progressive-era critiques of intervention and empire, saw disabled veterans “as portents of a terrible new age of unparalleled violence.” Countless unrehabilitated World War I vets, from drunken panhandlers to empty-sleeve amputees, became for peace activists powerful symbols of the “lingering legacies of military adventurism.”
In 1921, Congress established a Veterans Bureau with 30,000 employees and an annual budget of $450 million. But within two years, half the money had gone missing while the backlog of unprocessed applications for aid rose to 200,000. Journalists and veterans’ organizations complained of lousy conditions in facilities where disabled veterans were confined. Bringing his account into the new century, Kinder notes that the “squalid” conditions and “indifferent” care that Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull found at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007 were “familiar patterns of negligence and neglect.”
The true economic and social costs of American wars are beyond calculation. Take, for example, the way cumulative wars have increased the inequalities of American life. War profiteers — arms manufacturers, military contractors, corrupt officials — are largely responsible for the widening economic chasm between their class and the cannon fodder, yet powerful veterans’ organizations have won special privileges, including higher education (the GI Bill) and preferential employment for unscathed as well as disabled vets. With the military racially segregated until 1948, however, and the country still plagued by racism today, the result has been, in Kinder’s strong words, “affirmative action — a chance to spend millions of dollars, millions of hours, and millions of words to shore up the social and economic privileges of white men” at the expense of racial minorities, suspected homosexuals, and women of all colors — the wives and mothers who remain to this day the principal providers of disabled veterans’ long-term care.
World War II produced mushroom clouds and 60 million dead worldwide, yet morphed in America into the Good War of the Greatest Generation, a mythic reconstruction of remembrance that eclipsed the real experience of veterans. (More than half a million were hospitalized for psychiatric care.) Selective memory also helped the nation to forget the next war, Korea, and accept official promises that modern high-tech “humanitarian interventions” and preemptive strikes to “spread democracy” would be both short and good.
Credit for reviving the Problem of the Disabled Veteran goes to those crazy vets of Vietnam. They marched, protested, and told the truth, led by wheelchair-bound vets like Ron Kovic, paralyzed from the waist down, who refused to be silent after giving his “young, numb dick to democracy.” Those anti-war vets and the colossal backfires of military technology that disabled U.S. soldiers — Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome — sent the military brass scrambling for new ways to manage war.
First, get a professional army of volunteers. These days most young Americans have other plans, so that means recruiting kids in failing high schools, waiving criminal records, and filling the ranks with gays and women. Drawn largely from the rural and urban poor, as Kinder notes, today’s disabled vets seem to lack the lobbying muscle of other interest groups. For years, their own veterans’ organizations campaigned merely for their right to a little rest between deployments.
Nevertheless, as public finance expert Linda Bilmes has noted, these post-9/11 vets use military medical services and apply for disability benefits at much higher rates than did veterans of previous wars. In 2010, Bilmes projected that the costs of their care would peak (not end) at between $600 billion and $1 trillion around 2050. But even with all that promised after-care, these vets are opting out, committing suicide at unprecedented rates .
Second, keep soldiers out of harm’s way. Wage war from the air, at long distance, by advanced weaponry, or by proxy, using foreign troops and militias and our own shadow army of mercenary private contractors. On the ground, think “force protection” and “risk aversion” even though such tactics leave U.S. ground forces holed up on bases while “insurgents” control the real world around them and drones take out the guilty and the innocent alike.
These new moves, plus advancements in medicine, kept U.S. soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq (so far) to “only” about 7,000, (plus at least an equal number of private contractors, many of whom, not being American, don’t seem to count). The number of wounded is inexact and hard to get since it passed one million in 2013 and ceased to be reported. It includes thousands whose lives were saved by heroic medicine, but doctors in the field, salvaging what they can of the bodies of catastrophically wounded soldiers, and knowing how such disabled vets will decline with age, ask themselves: “When he wakes up, when he sees what’s happened to him, will he be glad to be alive?”
Even without taking readers into the all-out war on terror, Kinder concludes that the military ambitions of the U.S. will not be restrained by the “true costs of war,” not even those exacted on the bodies of its soldiers. The obvious alternative is to stop making war, as most European nations did 70 years ago, but Kinder thinks it is not the course the United States will choose.
Ann Jones is the author of “They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars—the Untold Story.”
Photo: Nina Berman /NOOR /Redux