At the risk of exaggeration, I think it is safe to say that no disabled population is as widely honored as disabled veterans. Because their physical and mental impairments are incurred in military service, disabled vets have historically succeeded in claiming a privileged, if not preferential, status when it comes to government-sponsored relief efforts. To be fair, the road to recognition has not come easily for disabled veterans, as a growing number of scholars have made clear. Disabled veterans, like all disabled people, have been the targets of discriminatory legislation, eugenicist "health" measures, and cultural stigma, and not all time periods—or nations—are equally friendly to disabled vets. (As always, it helps to be on the winning side of a conflict.) Even so, throughout modern history, disabled veterans have tended to enjoy far more public assistance and state support than any other disabled group.
In Casualties of History, Lee K. Pennington examines the shifting status of disabled Japanese servicemen in the decades surrounding World War II. Pennington's overarching narrative—a story of encroaching state responsibility for veterans' affairs—will sound somewhat familiar to those who have read books like Deborah Cohen's The War Come Home (2001) or Beth Linker's War's Waste (2011), both of which examine Western (U.S. and European) responses to disabled vets. Prior to the 1920s, when Japanese war casualties were relatively low, the Japanese public (rather than the government) was largely responsible for "alleviating the financial hardships of crippled soldiers" (22). As the twentieth century progressed, however, the role of caring for disabled veterans shifted to the state. An important turning point came during World War I, when Japanese military and medical leaders began to embrace the Western concept of vocational rehabilitation to help disabled veterans return to postwar society as productive workers. The expansion of such programs—along with a revamped pension system and an array of other measures—"presented a categorical rethinking of war-wounded men as individuals deserving preferential" treatment, above and beyond their fellow (disabled) citizens (41). No less significant, Pennington suggests the rising support for disabled veterans helped smooth the way for future military endeavors, as Japanese society became more willing to accept high numbers of war casualties.
It should be noted that, at times, disabled veteran's history can make for pretty dry reading. In their encounters with the state, Japanese disabled veterans were forced to wend their way through a vast bureaucratic apparatus—a seemingly never-ending web of acronyms, obscurely titled programs, and long-winded pronouncements that left many wounded servicemen overwhelmed and that can leave even the most diligent social historian reaching for the NoDoz. Pennington skillfully avoids this pitfall by anchoring his discussion of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) medical system in the story of Private First-Class Saijō, a Japanese soldier who was wounded in the forearm by an exploding shell in 1939. Drawing upon his 1941 memoir, The Fighting Artificial Arm, Pennington traces Saijō's ordeal from the moment of injury, through various echelons of the medical evacuation process (his arm was eventually amputated), to Tokyo Number Three Army Hospital, the nation's "premier medico-military institution for combat amputees" (17). In doing so, Pennington challenges the view put forth by anthropologist Ruth Benedict that the IJA medical system was inadequate and that "Japanese soldiers [were] fanatics who routinely chose death over life" (58).
Many DSQ readers will likely find Chapter 5—a lengthy survey of disabled veterans in Japanese wartime propaganda and pop culture—the most interesting part of Casualties of History. Pennington points out that, unlike in Nazi Germany or the United States (both of which redacted representations of wounded soldiers from the public record), Japanese wartime culture abounded with images and stories of disabled veterans, even though the actual pain associated with bodily trauma remained largely absent. Throughout the war years, "white-robed heroes" (so named because of the robes worn by Japanese wounded soldiers during and after convalescence) were celebrated as national heroes and icons of "selfless sacrifice" (166). Pennington draws upon the work of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and others to show how wartime Japanese culture attempted to defuse doubts about high casualty rates by downplaying the physical limitations associated with serious injury. Indeed, Pennington suggests that the "extraordinary treatment of disabled veterans in mass culture" played an important role in cementing public support for the war effort, even in its darkest hours (193).
We might imagine, then, the surprise and outrage felt by disabled veterans when they were increasingly marginalized in Japan's postwar "loser's narrative" (9). Eager to stamp out the last vestiges of Japanese militarism, the occupying Supreme Commander for Allied Powers (SCAP) dismantled the veterans' assistance system and stripped disabled veterans of their military pensions. SCAP insisted that disabled veterans did not deserve special consideration based upon their military service. They were, instead, lumped into a larger population of "war sufferers," their stories of hardship quickly eclipsed by those of bereaved families and other civilian casualties (197). In this respect, Pennington opines, disabled Japanese veterans of World War II were "doubly casualties of history"—first injured in a failed war and then forgotten by a nation eager to exorcise the ghosts of its martial past (16). It is a historical lesson that the latest generation of US disabled veterans should take to heart: nations tend to "support the troops" when it is convenient. The "white-robed hero" one day might be penniless in the streets the next.
Casualties of History ends, somewhat abruptly, in the early 1950s, and I could not help but wonder what happened next. What happened to the 60,000-member Japan Disabled Veterans Association, which Pennington tantalizingly mentions in the book's introduction (14)? Were disabled veterans left behind during the vaunted Japanese "economic miracle" of the 1960s-1980s? Did they remain "forgotten men" until the revival of interest in disabled veterans in the early 2000s? And to what extent did changing ideas about gender and sexuality shape responses to disabled veterans in the postwar years? Perhaps Pennington is already at work on a follow-up that addresses such questions. For now, though, we should appreciate the fine work that he has accomplished. Meticulously researched and thoughtfully conceived, Casualties of History is a premier work of disability history—one that deserves to be read by students and teachers alike.
- Cohen, D. (2001). The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Linker, B. (2011). War's Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.