Sunday, April 5, 2015

John M. Kinder's "Paying with Their Bodies"

John Kinder is an assistant professor of American studies and history at Oklahoma State University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Paying with Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran, and reported the following:
From page 99:
During the first few months of the ceasefire, Woods’s office was inundated with letters, postcards, and wire messages from veterans seeking work. Some men sent in full resumes complete with detailed lists of their qualifications and vocational interests. The saddest missives told of veterans revisiting their old firms only to discover that they were considered no longer qualified or that former underlings had now become their superiors. In March 1919, Woods created the Emergency Employment Committee, consisting of former soldiers, college professors, and experts in the fields of business, management, and law. Over the next nine months, the committee sponsored job classes, promoted public works projects, and distributed thousands of engraved citations to businesses that hired out-of-work veterans. Recognizing the importance of good publicity, Woods launched a multimedia propaganda campaign to convince hesitant employers that ex-soldiers were, in his words, an “excellent buy.”

Despite Woods’s efforts, veterans with disabling injuries or mental impairments remained vulnerable to the dramatic contraction of the postwar economy. Many of the private-sector jobs promised in the flush of victory never materialized, and government placement officers struggled to persuade employers that permanently disabled men could hold their own alongside their nondisabled counterparts. In some cases, veterans’ unemployment (or underemployment) was a result of recurring war-related illnesses or old wounds that refused to heal. Hit by a piece of shrapnel in the Argonne Forest, Ralph V. Anderson, a carpenter from Harwick, Pennsylvania, was forced to quit his job after only four months because of insomnia, post-traumatic nervousness, and chronic necrosis (his head wound did not stop draining fluid until 1922). Others had been unhealthy upon enlistment and, despite incurring no actual wounds, were mustered out of service physically and mentally incapacitated. When he joined the Navy in July 1917, Francis Burke, an electric crane operator from Philadelphia, already suffered from painful varicose veins in his legs and a possible case of pulmonary tuberculosis. Aggravated by his service, his symptoms grew progressively worse, as near daily bouts of nausea and vomiting were compounded with night sweats, weight loss, and a relentless hacking cough. By the time Burke was finally discharged for disability in April 1919, he was spitting blood and too weak to return to the factory.
Page 99 is a somber page in a largely somber book. The page opens with a scene from the early months of 1919. World War I is over, and the US economy has slipped into recession. Arthur Woods, a former New York police commissioner, has been tasked by the War Department to help ex-soldiers transition to civilian life. But not all veterans have returned from the Western Front on equal footing. Some former doughboys are blind, have lost limbs, or are incapacitated by disease—and now they need assistance.

Page 99 illustrates one of the central themes of Paying with Their Bodies: the postwar hardships of disabled veterans. The historical experience of disabled vets in the United States has been marked by recurring patterns of social prejudice and economic privation. Indeed, a cynical reader might come away from the book thinking that Americans prefer fatal casualties to disabled ones. (And, to be honest, that cynical reader is probably right.)

At the same time, page 99 hints at a significant change in public policy toward disabled veterans. By World War I, many in the federal government were no longer content to reward disabled vets with a pension or a bed in a soldiers’ home. Instead, they believed that the “problem of the disabled veteran” was best solved by turning “helpless cripples” into “useful citizens.” As a result, the government reorganized its veterans’ programs around the concept of rehabilitation, an integrated regimen of physical therapy and vocational training. Aimed at restoring wounded warriors to “normal” life, rehabilitation has been the backbone of US disabled veterans’ policy ever since.

Still, page 99 fails to capture perhaps the most important concern of the book: the relationship between disabled veterans and American conceptions of war. In Paying with Their Bodies, I contend that disabled veterans have been at the center of two competing visions of war since the late 19th century. The first imagines the dawn of a post-disability era of American warfare, one in which the most devastating wounds can be erased thanks to technology and social planning. The second vision is far less optimistic and, in my mind, far more credible. Its dominant message: that life-shattering physical and mental trauma has been—and will be—an inevitable consequence of American military conflict overseas.
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--Marshal Zeringue