he injured bodies of military service members are an all too common feature in news coverage of war. U.S. forces have benefited from technological changes that have radically reduced the incidence of death at war since the Vietnam era, increasing the proportion of veterans living with combat induced injuries. According to the latest estimates, sixteen soldiers are injured for every one U.S. death in current wars, compared to roughly two injured soldiers for every one U.S. death in World War II and the Vietnam conflict. Improved helmets and Kevlar vests mean that two out of three injuries today involve the arms or legs. Such injuries typically end a soldier’s tour, but now, they leave damaged bodies that occupy a central role in communicating the meaning of contemporary wars, warranting sustained public concern and attention. The return of such damaged or unruly bodies is freighted with an excess of symbolicity that threatens to undermine war efforts and to dissociate injured veterans and civilians.
Yet, U.S.-led wars have persisted, in part, because of the ways dominant voices have managed the representation of injured bodies by constituting them as normal or “proper” bodies. By realigning what is “unruly” about their bodies within the rhetorical boundaries of familiar domestic narratives and contexts, dominant discourses erode the argumentative grounds for the body to serve as a locus of war dissent. At the moment they are most dangerous, that is, conventional characterizations and cultural practices take purchase on, pull rhetorically, or otherwise “claw back” images of veterans in ways that flatten their injuries and prevent them from disrupting the inertia that has made war seem permissible and worthy.
Newsweek’s March 5, 2007 cover image features Specialist Marissa Strock, a 21-year-old veteran of the Iraq War who lost two friends and both legs when an IED exploded beneath the Humvee in which she was riding. Against a clear white background, Strock stands out in an Army t-shirt with a reddish stain on its front, perhaps from spilled food, and standard-issue Army shorts. Strock poses for the picture on a stool, her legs amputated at mid-calf, as her prostheses sit beneath her, unattached to the stumps that are now her legs. Her closed mouth and facial expression suggest exhaustion, perhaps pain, as if she has just completed physical therapy. She crosses her legs at the knee—a conventional feminine posture juxtaposed against the absence and utter difference of her body. Her right arm bears less visible but clearly serious scars related to the broken arm, wrist, and collarbone she sustained in the blast that destroyed her legs. The caption beneath her photo, “Failing Our Wounded” frames her as a victim of a secondary tragedy—inadequate medical care and bureaucratic red tape that had prolonged her suffering and that of many veterans upon their return home. The Newsweek cover thus represents Strock as trapped in a despairing state of injury caused by and perpetuated by the Army.
In the context of war the historical practice of rhetorically “correcting” bodies takes on an explicit political purpose.
“Failing Our Wounded” refers to the scandal over veterans’ health care that broke out when the Washington Post published a series of investigative articles depicting Walter Reed’s deteriorating living conditions and the extended bureaucratic delays veterans and their families experienced at the hospital. The Post described a Walter Reed hospital that had transformed from the “crown jewel of military medicine” to an overpopulated, dirty, poorly-run facility with inattentive and under qualified staff. Service members from the Army and Marines recovering at Walter Reed told the Post about the mountains of paperwork—on average it takes twenty-two forms to exit and enter the facility—the lack of staff, and a “bureaucratic battlefield nearly as chaotic as the real battlefields they faced overseas.” Spanish-speaking families had to contend with additional language barriers because the hospital rarely had bilingual staff on hand. In short, the Newsweek cover set Strock in the context of Walter Reed, where badly injured soldiers, a group already physically and mentally vulnerable, were poorly cared for and subjected to additional, unnecessary burdens that threatened to stall or even reverse their recovery. By March 2, only two weeks after the initial Washington Post report, the Secretary of the Army had fired the general in charge and reassigned several other highly placed staff at Walter Reed.Weeks later, President Bush asked former Senator Bob Dole, whose right arm was paralyzed in World War II, and Donna Shalala, former secretary of health and human services, to investigate Walter Reed Medical Center and report back. Marissa Strock’s appearance on the front of Newsweek on March 5, then, should be understood in light of widening public attention to and reconsideration of health care for veterans vis-à-vis Walter Reed. As a metonym for the failures of the state, Strock’s body in the front cover of Newsweek functioned as a plea for help, an efficient expression of the need to reexamine a health care system that apparently had not adapted to the new realities of war. Failing to act was to risk failing her.
In Newsweek’s online version of the story, however, Strock’s photo appeared next to another, far different photo. Here, we find her alone in a kayak, paddling and smiling broadly during a trip organized by the Wounded Warrior Project. In this photo, her legs are almost completely obscured. While we might feel sorry for Strock the amputee, mired in the bureaucracy of a failing veteran’s hospital, in the familiar domain of recreation and exercise the photo activates a distinctly different emotional encoding, turning away from the causes of her wounds and toward her future recovery, and inviting the viewer to cheer her on. Her happiness and physical vitality against the odds works as a reassuring sign that she is recovering or has already recovered from her injuries. Rather than framing Strock as a harsh reminder of the bodily consequences of failing military and medical institutions, as the Newsweek cover does when it invokes the Walter Reed scandal, Strock in a kayak—and no longer wearing an Army t-shirt—figures her wounds as a personal obstacle for herto overcome, decoupling her injuries from the very institutions and policies that made them possible. Importantly, Strock’s injured body produces movement: the kayak photo is an antidote for the Walter Reed photo. Indeed, as Shildrick argues, disabled and other “monstrous” bodies have long been
shown in such a way as to offset their non-normative natures and bodies with an appeal to their recognisable everyday or cultured attributes that drew in the spectators at the same time as astounding them. Relatively few of those displayed were passive objects; they were performers engaged not only in showing off their anomalies, but in singing, sewing, dancing, feeding children, conversing in foreign languages, and in every way bypassing the putative handicaps of their extraordinary body.
In the context of war the historical practice of rhetorically “correcting” bodies takes on an explicit political purpose. As John Jordan argues, when advances in medical and transportation technologies after World War I increased the number of plastic surgeries, “correcting” bodies altered by war injury was “a means to allow soldiers to return home as heroic rather than pitiable figures, thereby preserving the social order through diminishing the personal and social stigma of modern warfare.” Photos of veteran amputees exercising serve a similar “corrective” purpose, but the context in which the body appears, rather than the prosthetic, directs the meaning of the body. Cast as an amputee in Army shorts and an Army shirt situates Strock in the context of war and failed medical care; sitting in a kayak, without the army signifier or a focus on her missing limbs, dissociates her otherwise unruly body from the war, deflects attention from Walter Reed, and replaces the institutional framework for her injuries with a recreational context that shows her actively overcoming her injuries.
The critical difference between failed institutions and active recreation is the movement accorded to Strock. On the front of Newsweek, she is static, stuck, and despairing. In the kayak, audiences can imagine her moving—quite happily, judging by her smile—beyond the frame. If the visual trope of an injured veteran engaging in normal physical exercise is an isolated representation, situating Strock’s injured body in this context might be inconsequential. But dominant visual discourses frequently set amputee bodies in sporting contexts, where their injured bodies move symbolically toward “wholeness.” Photos of injured vets frequently set them in sport contexts, showing them golfing, skiing and snowboarding, biking, sailing, lifting weights, climbing rock walls, swimming, and participating in virtually every imaginable recreational context. This is significant because, as DeLuca argues, bodies shown in politicized contexts are “not merely flags to attract attention for the argument but the site and substance of the argument itself.” Picturing veteran amputees in sporting contexts places them in a familiar setting for the millions of Americans who have ever exercised, played on a team, or pursued athletics recreationally; as such it functions enthymematically to activate the viewer’s sense that athletic performances are evidence of the health of the body, and, by metonymical extension, the health of the nation-state.