A few days ago, I was walking near my house in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when I met a man. He looked to be in his late twenties. He was shirtless, clad only in jeans and cowboy boots. He had a tattered confederate flag tattoo on his chest and the word "REDNECK" stenciled in all-caps on his back. He could barely walk. Small scars covered his sunburned skin, and his right arm was tied off with a blue cord, as if he had just shot up or sold plasma. He asked for some money. I gave him what I had. That's when he told me his story. He had been in Iraq. He'd shot two people. Now he was living on the street. The only upside was that the VA was going to help him. He just needed to make it a few days longer. I didn't say much, and we continued on together for a few more minutes. Then, after shaking my hand for the third time, he hobbled off toward a public park where, he said, his buddies were waiting. It was midday. The temperature was 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Who was this particular man? What, if anything, does he share with the tens of thousands of ex-soldiers lumped into the category of "disabled veterans"? How do the traumas of war's violence linger in his body and mind? Such questions inform anthropologist Zoë H. Wool's remarkable new study, After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed. The book is based upon a series of ethnographic field studies, which the author carried out at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in 2007-2008. After living and working at the on-post Fisher House, a communal home for severely injured soldiers and their families, she explores "what it is like to be blown up as an American soldier and then to be pulled toward an ideal American ordinary of nonsoldiering life" (7). Wool is not the first author to cover this terrain, as she notes early on. Since the start of the War on Terror in 2001, journalists and scholars have rushed to pull back the curtain on the secret suffering of this latest generation of war-wounded troops. However, unlike earlier ethnographic studies, which focus on the "symbolic, social, and institutional politics" of war injury, After War offers a uniquely intimate look at soldiers' embodied experiences and ordinary lives (4). For this reason alone, the book is a must-read for any serious scholar of disabled vets.

After a lengthy introduction, the book unfolds as a series of five meditations on the social and material consequences of war injury. In Chapter 1, for example, Wool examines the "extra/ordinary atmosphere" of Walter Reed, a space where the lives of disabled soldiers and their families are "characterized by an unstable oscillation between the extreme and the unremarkable" (60, 21). While recovering on-post, patients live in generic housing featuring, in Wool's words, "all the comforts of normative middle-class American domesticity" (32). For months (sometimes years) on end, soldiers watch television, play video games, endure painful therapy, and—above all else—wait for their bodies to heal. Yet, despite its surface appearances and predictable routines, Walter Reed is "not a home, not a place where one settles in" (52). Instead, it is a place where recovering soldiers are forced to grapple with the "contradictions and uncertainties of life in the aftermath of injury" (5). Severely injured soldiers confront the gap between themselves and the noble wounded warriors the public expects them to be. They struggle to reconstruct their masculine identities in the wake of life-altering injury. And, perhaps above all else, they deal with the loss of the "taken-for-granted, unattended, and automatic functioning" of their prewar bodies (42).

Later chapters of the book combine theoretical discussions of life at Walter Reed with poignant vignettes taken from Wool's fieldwork. Topics range from the movement of soldiers' bodies—both on- and off-post—to the intimate physical and psychological attachments forged (and not forged) between soldiers and their families. Animating much of After War is Wool's careful attention to what she calls the "miniscule war" experienced by American soldiers, both before and after injury (33). The author spotlights moments that would be overlooked in grand narratives of American war: anxious conversations between soldiers and their spouses amidst the slow, agonizing boredom of Walter Reed's daily life; the logistical difficulties of arranging six people into a limousine without brushing against one soldier's "painfully exposed legs"; the "dangers of being alone" at a place where—according to the logic of rehabilitation—a "proper body was supposed to be a self-sufficient one, one that could sleep and wake, walk and eat, live and breathe on its own" (34, 40, 163, 158). Living, eating, and working amongst the men at Walter Reed, Wool is privy to things that would go unseen by scholars looking from afar. She is especially attuned to the gulf between the "idealized trajectories of rehabilitation" and the precarious, often messy, nature of injured soldiers' everyday existence (26).

A note of caution: After War is not an easy read—and not simply because of the content. Wool leans heavily upon anthropological and cultural theory throughout the book, and non-specialist readers will no doubt need to re-read some paragraphs in order to grasp the nuances of Wool's arguments. (I know I did.) Moreover, as a historian, I'll admit that I sometimes struggled to reconcile Wool's insights with broader historical patterns. During a discussion of the "economy of patriotism," for example, Wool notes how contemporary civilian volunteers and war boosters often insist upon an "unpayable debt of sacrifice" to severely injured soldiers (98, 112). This is no doubt true; yet equally true is the fact that, as early as the 1920s, disabled veterans themselves were making nearly identical assertions. Is this evidence of a historical shift? Have large numbers of post-9/11 disabled veterans abandoned earlier generations' "claims of sacrifice" (102)? Or is this reluctance unique to the men Wool observed at Walter Reed?

These quibbles notwithstanding, After War is an important contribution to the growing literature on the embodied legacies of war injury. At a time when disabled veterans are often stereotyped as "patriotic heroes, victims of trauma, subjects of inspirational striving, or objects of intimate danger," Wool refuses to generalize (193-194). Rather, she urges the reader to recognize the particularities of individual vets' bodies and experiences. In doing so, she offers a model of scholarly precision and urgency that will excite—and, at times, challenge—a wide range of DSQ readers.

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Copyright (c) 2016 John Matthew Kinder

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