Book Review: After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed

After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed. Zoë H. Wool, Durham: Duke University Press, 2015, 244 pp.

Zoë Wool’s After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed offers an ethnographically rich, theoretically nuanced, and compulsively readable analysis of the experiences of injured soldiers at one of the nation’s most iconic medical centers. Wool draws on anthropological studies of conflict, trauma, affect, and disability to probe the daily lives of a group of returned U.S. soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. What, she asks, might ethnography reveal by approaching the ordinary lives of a community still enmeshed in the afterlife of such extraordinary violence?

After War draws on fieldwork at Fisher House, a facility billed as a “home away from home” serving injured soldiers and their family caregivers (often spouses) on the Walter Reed Medical Center grounds in Bethesda, Maryland. At the time of Wool’s writing, there were over 60 Fisher Houses around the United States and three at Walter Reed. These so-called comfort houses are attached to military hospitals and aim to provide a homelike atmosphere to residents, many of whom have sustained massive injuries. Wool describes her field site as “generically homey,” reflecting an ethos of normative middle-class domesticity (p. 29). The refrigerators are fully stocked and the décor is meticulous, yet the space remains not quite ordinary. Daily life is marked by visits from politicians or beauty queens, the presence of movie crews, and even the arrival of freshly cooked dinners from volunteers. It is a home of sorts, but one that retains a sense of what Wool describes as the uncanny.

After War is not an institutional ethnography, but rather an analysis of the processes of world-making in a particular space and moment. Fisher House is the stage for Wool’s interlocutors, and the text is ethnographic storytelling at its finest. Wool’s study centers on a group of injured soldiers, primarily men. They are lower-ranking officers and most enlisted after 9/11. The general age range is 19–25. All have sustained serious injuries, such as from improvised explosive devices or other explosives. Many have had at least one amputation. With a few exceptions, the women in the text are wives, girlfriends, or mothers. Wool is careful to note the absence of civilian voices from the conflict zones.

The theme of normative masculinity looms large throughout the text. Within the American public imaginary, the soldier is quintessentially male. Conceptualized as a hero and patriot, he is a physically fit serviceman who embodies strength while being imminently killable. As Wool reminds us, the soldier’s injured body is subject to unique forms of compensation through the payment of goods, money, and gratitude in exchange for the risks of war.

Wool’s analysis of the economy of patriotism is one of the book’s key contributions. Through these moral, material, and affective exchanges, soldiers receive thanks for their supposed bodily sacrifice and bravery for confronting the threat of danger to the nation. Wool disrupts the smooth logic of this narrative, framing injured bodies and minds in terms of converging vectors of work, duty, accident, and value rather than moralistic tones of sacrifice and remuneration. Ethnographic scenes depict the inescapable flow of special events, concerts, donated goods, weekly steak dinners, insurance payments for lost limbs, and parking lots filled with luxury cars. This stuff of gratitude becomes ordinary for residents, but to what end? Indeed, Wool makes explicitly clear that these soldiers do not see themselves as having sacrificed for the good of the nation. Their perspective is more mundane: They were simply injured on the job. This logic disrupts the sanitizing discourse of gratitude, which elides actual violence through public expressions of affective or material appreciation to the injured patriot.

The public face of Walter Reed, founded in 1908, has long been the image of the injured soldier. While geographically separate from the theaters of war, the separation is porous and it remains saturated by the bodies and rhythms of postwar life. The ordinariness of walking with crutches, using a wheelchair, an awkward gait, a missing limb—these new dimensions of the flesh do not draw attention at Walter Reed. The common sense of the space involves an attunement to, for instance, the attention required when learning to walk with a prosthesis or making sense of disordered speech patterns following a traumatic brain injury. The ordinary within the walls of the medical facility is distinct, affectively charged, and defies a separation of the social and the fleshy. Inside and outside break down, forcing the reader to dwell in these zones of precarious life, brought into these ordinary spaces by way of extraordinary events.

Wool’s analysis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will be particularly relevant to scholars of mental health and disability. Rather than focusing on the history, politics, or practices of the diagnosis, she seeks to complicate the category of posttraumatic itself. Wool is particularly attuned to the role of movement and space in posttraumatic experience, framing PTSD an ongoing process of being and becoming—of moving within and through the world—rather than as a pathological effect. The concepts of before and after trauma unfold here as processes, not distinctive states.

Wool reframes normal versus pathological binaries of PTSD in terms of worlding. What sensibilities or lived experiences come together as soldiers move—physically and socially—through postwar lives? Instead of focusing on the

pathology of PTSD, After War probes postwar ordinaries of being in and feeling the world, replete with new modes, anxieties, and logics of negotiating space and movement in daily life. These soldiers re-negotiate public spaces, keeping an eye out for exits, for anything suspicious that could pose new dangers in previously safe spaces. In so doing, they craft a new ordinariness of movement in post-conflict life. Perhaps being posttraumatic is more about existing and becoming in these contact zones of recent pasts and reinterpreted presents.

Wool’s writing, scenes, and analysis keep the reader’s gaze trained on bodies. She writes against divisions of the social versus the body, asking how these domains animate one another in the intensely intimate project of returning home after injury. Disability scholars will note that Wool’s soldiers are adamant in their disavowal of a disability identity. They are not disabled, despite their lost limbs, assistive technology needs, or brain injuries. But if this is not disability, what is it? What, Wool asks, is disrupted by the injured body of the soldier? Domesticity, sexuality, relationships to and in space, sudden moments of urgency or vulnerability, a newly mundane life-or-death risk if a soldier forgets his antibiotics on an otherwise uneventful dinner outing. The injured soldier is both a subject and object to which these forces and moments adhere.

After War is an important addition to current anthropological studies of the body, health, disability, mental illness, conflict, and trauma, and would be an excellent addition for courses at the graduate or undergraduate level. It will also be of interest to scholars of contemporary military history, American Studies, and Disability Studies.

In many ways, After War reads as a classic ethnography. The reader has no doubt that Wool was embedded in the site, trading stories with informants during smoke breaks, or riding along with a group in a luxury SUV purchased after an insurance reimbursement for a lost limb. Wool insists on the ordinariness shared between the residents of Fisher House, whose daily lives remain over-determined by the trauma that sent them there. Ordinariness here is imbued with patriotism, distant but active theaters of war, precarity, and physical or psychological discomfort. The dialog is rich, and at times the reader feels perched conspiratorially in the corner of a bedroom, listening in on the ethnographer and residents. Wool’s writer voice is strong—jarringly so, at times—and she does not flinch. The reader cannot help but be pulled in by the stories of Fisher House, enthralled by the precarity of their post-conflict lives during America’s modern wars.

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