Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Hawley, Thomas M. (2005). The Remains of War: Bodies, Politics, and the Search for American Soldiers Unaccounted For in Southeast Asia. Durham: Duke University Press. 296 pages, $22.95, Paper 0-8223-3538-7.

Reviewed by Cynthia Wu, Agnes Scott College

Benedict Anderson opens Imagined Communities (1983) by observing that tombs of unknown soldiers are integral to the project of nation building because the vaults are left empty or otherwise house purposefully unidentified remains. The unnamed individual subsumed into an abstracted communal goal thus emblemizes the very concept of nationalism. Thomas M. Hawley directs an implicit nod to Anderson when he begins his monograph describing the 1998 removal, forensic examination, and identification of the bones inside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War. However, Hawley turns Anderson's claim on its head by locating this phenomenon within a historical moment unlike any other preceding it - for he argues that the mission of recovering and identifying human remains from the war in southeast Asia has everything to do with nation building in the wake of the first U.S. military defeat.

Although no U.S. prisoners of war have materialized since Operation Homecoming in 1973 and no credible evidence has ever surfaced corroborating the existence of U.S. soldiers in Vietnamese prisons, widespread anxieties that the Vietnamese continue to hold POW's mobilize attempts to recover bodily remains in Southeast Asia. According to Hawley, these hyperbolic undertakings - unprecedented in U.S. history - to find every missing body are a way for the U.S. to restore itself to victory after defeat and exercise its leverage in the global arena in its ongoing relations with Vietnam.

The Remains of War contains chapters addressing: the shift in designating soldiers missing in action from unrecoverable to unaccounted for; the processes government agencies undergo to find bodily remains; the figure of the disabled Vietnam War veteran; memorial practices like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the POW/MIA flag; and ethical dimensions of U.S.-Vietnam relations in projects of search and recovery. For the purposes of this review, I focus on the chapter about images of disabled Vietnam War veterans in relation to the solider missing in action.

Hawley avers that the disabled Vietnam War veteran and the soldier unaccounted for in Southeast Asia exist within a binary whereby the denigration of the former allows the idealization of the latter. The absent soldier becomes an innocent victim whose bodily remains need to be repatriated if the U.S. body politic is to restore itself after defeat. Conversely, the materiality of the body of the veteran "reinforces the loss of the war by indicating its continuation in the often maimed and dysfunctional bodies of its combatants" (116). That veterans who returned from Southeast Asia were active in antiwar movements only served to exacerbate their image as decidedly uncooperative, unpatriotic, and dysfunctional subjects. Hawley contends that this pathologization of the Vietnam War veteran is best demonstrated in the designation of psychology and psychiatry as the most viable knowledge-producing regimes about veterans after the Vietnam War. He also reads filmic narratives such Deathdream (1972) and Coming Home (1978) to unpack popular sentiments about psychologically traumatized and maladjusted soldiers returning from Southeast Asia.

Hawley's juxtaposition of psychological records alongside Vietnam War films is helpful in highlighting the dislocation between medical and popular-cultural discourses about disabled Vietnam War veterans because it shows the level of disconnect between medical diagnoses and collective imagination. Although there were many more soldiers discharged for psychiatric reasons during World War II than during the Vietnam War, Hawley observes that popular representations of World War II veterans returning from war shows them to be well-adjusted and heroic in contrast to popular representations of Vietnam War veterans - indicating the level of disgust and disavowal with which the public regards the latter.

The Remains of War is a very strong and compelling book. However, I wonder if - in creating a dichotomy between the Vietnam War and World War II - Hawley overplays the lionization of disabled World War II veterans and underplays the degree with which the arts and culture about World War II also foregrounds veterans' readjustment difficulties. Narratives such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and No-No Boy (1957) feature disabled World War II veterans whose return to civilian life is far from smooth. I wonder, too, if Hawley downplays public resistance to the Vietnam War. That veterans participated in antiwar demonstrations would not have been so damning given that the views expressed at antiwar rallies were not considered fringe or extremist. In addition, I would have liked for Hawley to have made connections - of which there were many - between the antiwar movement and the various civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s. Although he does a good job of unpacking the gender politics of representations of the disabled Vietnam War veteran, he does not address the racial politics of veteran discourses during this time of intense social change heralded by people of color and indigenous peoples.

I very highly recommend this text for upper-level undergraduate courses and graduate courses in cultural studies, American studies, film and visual culture studies, and disability studies.

Copyright (c) 2006 Cynthia Wu

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