Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Dole, Bob. One Soldier's Story: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. 287 pages. 23 photographs. Cloth $25.95. ISBN 0-06-076341-8.

Reviewed by John M. Kinder, University of Minnesota

In One Soldier's Story, former U.S. Senator and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole offers his contribution to a literary genre whose rise has paralleled that of modern war itself–the disabled soldier's memoir. Like its many famous forbears (Harold Russell's Victory in My Hands, Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July, etc.), Dole's book is less a meditation on the relationship between war-making and disability than a narrative of one man's experience as a wartime casualty. On May 14, 1945, the twenty-one-year-old Dole was leading a platoon in the mountains of northern Italy when he was wounded in the back and right shoulder by German machine-gun fire. Paralyzed from the neck down, Dole spent the next thirty-nine months in and out of military hospitals, nearly dying on several occasions. Despite years of occupational therapy and physical rehabilitation, damage to his shoulder and spinal cord left Dole with chronic tremors, weakness, and only limited use of his arms and hands.

Structured as a series of flashbacks and reminiscences, One Soldier's Story opens on Christmas 2004, with Dole visiting soldiers wounded in the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Viewing the mangled bodies of America's war-wounded, Dole is reminded of his own experience as an injured G.I. nearly six decades earlier. After sketching the history of the Italian campaign in WWII, Dole offers a compelling (if not overly detailed) reconstruction of the moment he was hit. Unable to move, the semi-conscious Dole would spend six hours waiting to be evacuated from the battlefield–during which time, the author assures us, his mind drifted back to his childhood in Russell, Kansas. The reader is carried back with him, and for over one hundred pages, Dole abandons his war story in favor of a nostalgic fable of small-town America. Russell, he explains, is a "quintessential Midwestern community, a picture postcard of rustic values and plainspoken wisdom." (p. 37) And throughout the book, Dole credits his Russell childhood with instilling in him the faith, humor, and strong work ethic that would serve him so well in his "battle" against death and disability.

A Soldier's Story is more than half-way over before Dole finally returns to the battlefield where his injured self remains awaiting medical care. And, no doubt, it is the second half of the book that will interest disability scholars most. The author guides the reader through each step of his evacuation and treatment regime–from his earliest battlefield care to the slow, painful process of recovering feeling in his damaged limbs. In contrast to sanguine pronouncements on the "miracles" of military rehabilitation (both in the aftermath of WWII and today), Dole paints a sobering portrait of the limitations of science in the face of war-produced injury. Despite having access to the finest care available, Dole's body is never restored to its prewar state. For the young Dole, disability connotes helplessness and inadequate masculinity, and throughout One Soldier's Story, the author provides glimpses of the fear, self-pity, and depression he experienced when coming to grips with his own physical limitations. However, such moments are few and far between. Possessed with seemingly limitless optimism, Dole remains buoyant throughout his hospitalization; realizing that no "miracle" will come, he learns to accept his disabilities and "see possibilities where others saw only problems." (p. 244)

Unfortunately, Dole's memoir, like those of so many other disabled veterans, ends too early. After narrating his initial foray into Kansas politics in 1950, Dole abruptly jumps forward a half-century to the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in 2004. How Dole's disability shaped his long career as a politician, his role as a husband and father, his identity as a veteran–on matters such as these, the author is largely silent. Moreover, Dole closes his memoir by reassuring us that Americans today are far more "tolerant" of disabled people than they were in the past (p. 280). Exactly what leads him to this conclusion–besides his own work on behalf of disabled veterans–remains a mystery.

One Soldier's Story is most affecting when Dole grants the reader access to the intimate ways disability has altered his sense of embodiment. His admission, for example, that even today he avoids looking at his full body in the mirror suggests a life haunted by the somatic legacies of war (p. 185). Ultimately, however, Dole eschews introspection in favor of clichés about the strong values and selflessness of the WWII generation. Indeed, when he isn't musing on the state of contemporary society or justifying his own conservative politics, Dole is most concerned with writing a tale of war-produced disability free of anger or antiwar resentment. His greatest fear, it seems, is that readers will remember only his pain and disfigurement–and not the noble cause for which he sacrificed so much.


Kovic, R. (1976). Born on the fourth of July. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Russell, H. (1949). Victory in my hands. New York: Creative Age Press.

Copyright (c) 2005 John M. Kinder

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