After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed

After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed

by Zoe H. Wool

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822360032
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/27/2015
Series: Critical Global Health: Evidence, Efficacy, Ethnography Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 737,662
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Zoë H. Wool is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rice University.

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After War

The Weight of Life At Walter Reed

By Zoë H. Wool

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6003-2



The feeling of ordinariness within Walter Reed was marked by excesses — of social value and symbolic meaning, of pain and uncertainty, of military bureaucracy, of publicity — which distinguished life there from other forms of American life and their unmarked ordinaries by degrees. There soldiers are remaking themselves and the lives they will have, processes that, by their very definition, cannot be completed within the space of Walter Reed in which they are attempted. Marked by excess and aspirational normativity, life at Walter Reed was permeated by confounding contradictions.

As they settled into outpatient life at Walter Reed, the heaviness of so much hitting each soldier all at once was matched only by the weight of boredom that, even in the presence of pain and frustration and anger and sadness, was the overriding feeling there. Life was heavy and slow. Soldiers felt it in the excruciating sluggishness of each day. Hours died impossibly long deaths watching TV, playing video games, sleeping, smoking, nothing. Even the daily activities of therapy appointments and paperwork filing and occasional formation were hemmed in by time that was impossibly hard to kill. Waiting in an office or on a line and getting exhausted and waiting until tomorrow; waiting for the doctors to say what to do about a newly infected bone only to have them recommend more antibiotics and more wait-and-see; waiting for the Fed Ex delivery of a new car part and then waiting until the shop was open to work on it, only to find out the shop wasn't available for personal use; waiting for the bus to take everyone out to a fancy dinner, where we would wait until some well-meaning speaker would say something about heroism so we could hurry up and eat our steak and then wait for the bus to bring us all back. While everything changes so quickly at Walter Reed, the affective apprehension of time is marked by boredom like you wouldn't believe: inescapable, inevitable, and everywhere (on boredom, see Taussig 2004).

Life at Walter Reed does not conform to idealized trajectories of rehabilitation, trajectories that govern clinical expectations but aren't quite transposable from medical textbooks to embodied contingencies (see Messinger 2010; for an interesting comparison see Zaman 2005: 79–86). By American standards, soldiers received remarkable care, had ready access to all the newest war-born innovations of surgery and prosthetics, to medications and intensive rehabilitative therapies that were not subject to the rules, whims, and fees of civilian insurance providers. Even so, the temporality of the body was twisted around like a Möbius strip. For example, Jake went through surgery after surgery to reconstruct his leg, but it only seemed to get worse. After they had done all they could, it still took months for him to convince them to cut the damned thing off so he could walk for more than twenty minutes at a time. The simple telos of a healing body gave way to the material facts of precarious bodies. For Alec, another soldier, the external fixator that was anchored into his tibia and hovered like scaffolding around his reconstructed leg was literally the structure of healing and the site and cause of a bone infection that slowed the pace of his recovery and even threatened the viability of the limb it had been made to re-create.

The weakening of regulations and the simultaneous presence and straining of bonds of kin that characterize Walter Reed threatened to thin soldiers' lives. As the management of their injured bodies came to the fore, the fields of military and thick familial affiliation out of which their lives had been made receded. And still, all of these dimensions of life were targeted for and subject to a chaotic thickening. Bodies were worked on and rebuilt and kin inescapably saturated daily life. Layers of the social skin were sloughed away but never left to rest, callusing and blistering in the intensity and friction of new modes of life and sociality. In place of the formerly reliable contours of a shared world was the ever remote and ever present horizon of an uncertain future that had to be made out of whatever and whoever the present had at hand. The relations of the present made it provisionally livable, and because they felt essential to and in the present, they had to yield to whatever came next. From this in-durable quality of social relations to the material facts of the body, the atmosphere at Walter Reed was characterized by such apparent contradictions, enduring juxtapositions, and hapless inversions that settled into the din of daily life. This is ordinary life — provisional and precarious — at Walter Reed.

Uncanny Space of Ordinary Life

Initially I came to know soldiers like Jake and Alec within the communal living spaces of the on-post Fisher House. The Fisher House was not only the physical space of our encounters but, in many ways, an allegorical space brimming with the features of the remaking of life after war with which this book is concerned. The Fisher House Foundation is a nonprofit organization started by Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher in 1990. Its mission is to build "comfort houses" attached to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and military hospitals, initially intended to be used by family members who wanted to be near their soldier or veteran loved ones requiring hospital treatment. The typical case imagined at the time was of an elderly veteran succumbing to the infirmities of age or perhaps a younger soldier being treated for cancer. One story goes that the idea of the foundation came to the Fishers at a fundraising dinner after hearing the story of a veteran's wife who had great difficulty being with her husband while he was being treated for cancer at a VAhospital.

As of this writing, the foundation has built sixty-four houses, with six more under construction. Each house functions as its own nonprofit organization, raising its own money and sorting out its own arrangement with the commander or administrator of the military or VA hospital it is attached to. Though the houses are "professionally furnished and decorated in the tone and style of the local region," they are uncannily similar, each a tactile and visual display of normative American notions of home and family, the importance of which is captured in the ubiquitous Fisher House motto: "A home away from home."

The normative ordinariness designed into these generic homes — their modern arrangements of living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms, their TVs and stockpiles of children's toys, their insinuations of normative social attachments — is intended to surround soldiers and their families in the midst of extraordinary experiences, offering them a strange domestic simulacra: the home away from home, a contradiction in terms that speaks rather literally to the simultaneously home-like and unhomely discomfort of the Unheimlich, the uncanny (Freud [1919] 2003).

Every house features a small front portico, with decorations that change with the seasons: a scarecrow in fall; a wreath in winter; perhaps some red, white, and blue bunting for the 4th of July. Every front door opens into an entranceway, at the back of which is a bronze bust of either Zachary or Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher. To the left is the generously sized dining room, to the right the large living room, complete with built-in bookcases stacked with paperbacks and board games that frame (where in keeping with the "tone of the local region") a fireplace. Above the mantle (or, in warmer climes, in its place) is invariably mounted the same huge photograph of Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher in their twilight years, arm in arm in matching leather bomber jackets, the house's warm and watchful patriarch and matriarch. From Landstuhl, Germany, to Ft. Hood, Texas, Fisher House managers pose in front of this homey tableau with novelty checks and proud and grateful donors, military and civilian alike (figs. 1.1–1.3).

In the back of each house is the kitchen, with an island counter in the middle and lots of storage so that each resident family can have their own cupboard marked with a number corresponding to the number of their bedroom. In newer houses the kitchen opens to a den. The most recently built houses are also wheelchair-accessible. Wherever possible, a backdoor leads to a patio or a yard. The bedrooms line the halls flanking the house and, when there is a second floor, its hallway. Each bedroom has a bed and a chair and a desk and an armoire and its own bathroom. In their regional variations, every Fisher House is generically homey, with soft couches and chairs, wooden floors, rugs, and warm neutral colors on the walls and in the patterns of the curtains. There is always a perfect spot for the Christmas tree. Alcohol is never allowed. Smoking is permitted only outside.

At Walter Reed there were actually three separate Fisher Houses. I spent most of my time in the newest of them, House III, Building 56 on Walter Reed Army Medical Center maps. House III has mottled grayish-brown tiles in the hallways and a big plush gray rug in the living room. Its granite countertops and stainless steel fridge are decidedly more modern than the folksy oak of House I, the oldest of all the Fisher Houses. Its red brick exterior is surrounded by a well-manicured lawn and modestly landscaped plant beds, often tended to in the spring and fall by groups of volunteers from local businesses or schools.

The walls are mauve, and the trim and moldings are wide, white, and plentiful, referencing a kind of American old-money elegance. There are framed pictures of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum and artsy black-and-white photos of unidentifiable architectural elements along with prints of the American flag and monochrome paintings of trees that blend unmemorably and inoffensively into the walls.

Divided from the kitchen by a breakfast bar is the den, with a huge TV and a big soft red couch, a pair of upholstered chairs, a coffee table, magazine rack, and small computer table with a new computer and a desk chair on wheels. It is here, in the kitchen and the den, next to the laundry room with its stacks of modern white washers and dryers and the storeroom full of food and diapers and T-shirts and teddy bears, that much of the little activities of life continue, where soldiers kill time flopped on the couch watching How It's Made or World's Wildest Police Videos, where babies sit in bouncy chairs while people putter with the dishes or show off new wheelchairs or share tidbits of gossip while snacking on Girl Scout cookies or ice cream, where soldiers or their mothers or wives make lunch, a bacon and turkey sandwich, some frozen tater tots, a can of soup, a Red Bull, homemade spaghetti and meat sauce, ground beef and beans and corn tortillas freshly made from Maseca. The Fisher House kitchen is kept fully stocked with canned and dry goods, snacks, fresh fruit, coffee, frozen food, and endless leftovers from lunches and dinners catered for special events or meals delivered by home cooks doing what they can for these soldiers who they feel have done so much for them. The leftover food is packed in Ziploc bags for easier storage but is usually thrown away after a day or two to make room for more in the always overflowing double-wide refrigerator. There was a Giant grocery store nearby and a supply of donated gift cards kept in the Fisher House manager's office behind the storeroom. But with all the catered food and donated meals, special dinners, cafeteria meal cards, and meals eaten at nearby chain restaurants ranging from McDonald's to Ruby Tuesday's, there wasn't too much grocery shopping to be done.

Through House III's back door is a patio of poured concrete and a red-brick retaining wall. Beyond that is a play structure for the kids, the ground below it softened by woodchips, but it was seldom used. The handsome round metal tables and yielding chairs were home to endless hours of cigarettes and chit chat, to mothers who sat and knitted or read magazines with endless cups of coffee while they attempted to give their sons, and perhaps themselves, some time unattached. When the weather was nice, soldiers' young kids may be out there too, getting hosed off from the heat, set up with some toys or a craft kit on a blanket on the ground, wanting a turn at their father's remote-control helicopter, whose movements he announced in fluent military speak complete with call signs. The communal space of the patio was also often given over to barbeques, organized by troop booster organizations, who arrived early in the afternoon to set up folding tables, line them with red, white, and blue tablecloths, and arrange coolers full of soda, huge bowls of coleslaw, and gratuitous supplies of hamburgers and hot dogs. Soldiers and their families are often outnumbered by volunteers wielding barbeque tongs and big, well-meaning smiles.

This home away from home was possessed of all the comforts of normative middle-class American domesticity. But that was not quite what it was. Its hominess is suffused with outpourings of gratitude and gestures of comfort and special recognition. Home-cooked meals appear on the kitchen counter. A memo appears under your door telling you Miss America will be making a visit. Domesticity here is publicized and sometimes conspicuously staged, as when a documentary film crew appeared to get footage of soldiers and family members doing daily domestic tasks like loading the dishwasher or eating dinner or when photographers assembled soldiers and their families into tableaus of shared leisure time for press releases or news stories. None of this is to say that it did not feel like home, only that it felt like a home of an uncanny kind, its ordinariness tinged with something else. It is a kind of home in which you might pad into the kitchen in your pajamas to fix some frozen French toast sticks and find a group of corporate executives or a general and his aides being shown the contents of the refrigerator on a tour of the house, neither of which are actually yours.

The Minuscule War

Approached from the scale of History, or read in the present through political debate, war is usually a massive thing: historic, monumental, catastrophic. During the time the events in this book unfolded (September 2007 to August 2008), the bigness of the "war on terror" could be measured in many ways: the United States reached the macabre landmark of the four-thousandth service member killed in Iraq, and estimates of civilians killed swelled past 100,000; Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz (2008) estimated the war's cost at $3 trillion, and the upcoming presidential election and the candidacy of Barack Obama entrenched astoundingly voracious and conspiratorial devotion to apocalyptic discourses of national insecurity that hinged on an imminent and Islamic threat to something described as American values, the real America, or the American way of life.

Grand patriotic themes, often with a Christian inflection and coded invocations of the war on terror's caricatured Islamic boogey man, were inescapable at Walter Reed. This bigness seeped into the very fiber of life there; it colored the banners waved by boosters in front of the gates every Friday night, it echoed in the lyrics of songs at USO shows, you could almost taste it in the hamburgers at Support Our Troops barbeques. But despite its ubiquity, this bigness of the "war on terror" was not the scale at which soldiers themselves approached war. It was rather the minuscule and fragmented details of materiality and lived experience that constituted soldiers' own attention to the things they had done that other people accounted for as the waging of a worthy war.

Among injured soldiers at Walter Reed, talk of war rarely took narrative form. Instead of the relative stability and logic of stories, there were descriptions of objects like the CamelBaks and the invariably hot water soldiers would drink from them to quench their desert thirst and keep dehydration at bay, or of an Iraqi man who shat in the street. There were bodily feelings and sense memories, like the heat of the Iraqi sun or the swarm of flies around an MRE (meal ready to eat). There were the intricate details of hot metal and sweating skin, the sound of gravel blown up in a mortar attack hitting the tin roof under which soldiers slept, all described without recourse to a narrative context, never mind notions of nationalism. Even when soldiers talked about things that happened, things they did that resembled the events of more fully fledged war stories, it was often in this same small and fragmented way, contiguous with the labors of life in the moment.


Excerpted from After War by Zoë H. Wool. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents


List of Abbreviations,
1 The Extra/ordinary Atmosphere of Walter Reed,
2 A Present History of Fragments,
3 The Economy of Patriotism,
4 On Movement,
5 Intimate Attachments and the Securing of Life,

What People are Saying About This

Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic - Julie Livingston

"This brilliant and absorbing ethnography reveals how the violence of war is rendered simultaneously enduring and ephemeral for wounded American soldiers. Zoë H. Wool accounts for the frankness of embodiment and the unstable yet ceaseless processes through which the ordinary work of living is accomplished in the aftermath of serious injury. After War is a work of tremendous clarity and depth opening new sightlines in disability and the critical politics of the human body."

Tim O'Brien

"After War is a powerful and exquisitely written study of the convalescence of seriously injured veterans of our country's current wars.  It is the best such book I've encountered, sometimes painful, sometimes inspirational, always enlightening.  Zoë Wool's sharp eye and keen intelligence helps us to more wholly appreciate the terrible physical and emotional struggles of our wounded soldiers."

Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America - David Serlin

"Hollywood films and literary memoirs tend to transform wounded veterans into tragic heroes or cybernetic supercrips. Zoë H. Wool knows better. In her beautifully written and deeply empathic study of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan at Walter Reed, Wool shows us the long slow burn of convalescence and how the ordinary textures of domestic life unfold in real time. An important and timely intervention."

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