Kenneth MacLeish’s Making War at Fort Hood

This article is part of the following series:

Making War at Fort Hood: Life and Uncertainty in a Military Community

by Kenneth T. MacLeish

Princeton University Press, 2013. 280 pp, US$ 29.95 (Cloth)


“They didn’t get into the details of real life, the little things,” a troubled U.S. war veteran criticizes a PTSD primer for returning soldiers in Kenneth MacLeish’s ethnography Making War at Fort Hood.  Echoing anthropological critiques, the veteran rejects the idea that his experience can be reduced to psychological nosologies with clearly defined symptoms and etiologies. To his credit, MacLeish, on the other hand, vividly delves into “the little things,” beautifully capturing everyday life in the vast Ft. Hood military base in between a seemingly endless cycle of deployments and homecomings. In less gifted hands, such finely attuned ethnographic attention to minutiae would become tedious but Making War at Fort Hood is absolutely engrossing. MacLeish has a keen eye for detail and writes with a fluid and poetic grace. This is one of the best-written ethnographies I have read in recent years.

Representative of anthropology’s turn towards the new subjectivities of embodied experience, Making War at Fort Hood is oriented around affect. The concept has become so ubiquitous in recent anthropology that I feel overwhelmed by affect and I remain unconvinced that it represents anything, to quote the song, “more than a feeling.”  But, unlike some other cases, affect here is not mere affectation. Such a focus allows MacLeish to attend to the experiences of war while responding to his soldier’s criticisms of the diagnostic category of PTSD, the dominant global framework to explain the negative consequences of war. Although a sympathetic media often use a discourse of trauma to gain attention to the plight of veterans, both trauma and PTSD can obscure more than they reveal about wartime experience. In particular, PTSD normalizes soldiers’ experience into a pre-existing narrative framework and could thus be said to do violence to their experience of violence. MacLeish understands that trauma is better understood as ethnographic object than analytic tool and thus wisely avoids its experience limiting trappings by using a more general concept of vulnerability.

Rather than distract, theory is seamlessly integrated into the text.  In terms of where anthropology is right now, Making War at Fort Hood hits twin buzzwords of the moment: precarity and uncertainty. In my mind, the current omnipresence of precarity and uncertainty may be best understood as projections of a young anthropologist’s anxiety onto his or her informants. But, like affect, rather than feel like an anthropological imposition, both concepts feel like a natural fit with the material, emerging from the ethnographic worlds of MacLeish’s military informants. His analysis is both lucid and sophisticated and emerges out of grounded experience. Uncertainty and precarity are anchored in MacLeish’s understanding of vulnerability where soldiers are trapped both symbolically and in reality in the middle of a firefight.

 “The body is an unstable, fleshy fulcrum between two apparently opposing but actually complicit forces, one aiming to destroy it and the other trying to carry it forward intact into the next moment of killing and being able to be killed.” (75)

As evident in the quote above, the ethnography is framed by multiple ambivalences, the ambiguities, paradoxes, and contradictions of being a vulnerable soldier of the world’s current invincible superpower.  Soldiers are perpetrators, victims, or witnesses of violence, occupying some or potentially all of these categories. War is normal, ordinary, and everyday but also exceptional (involving, of course, a state of exception). Violence is destructive but also productive. Love both facilitates the work of the military as an organizing emotion but also works against it. Love binds and fissures. Soldiers are trapped between a debt that can never be repaid but also their own real indebtedness, financial and otherwise. In the end, MacLeish’s soldiers are central to American patriotic rhetoric but also forgotten and marginalized, walking casualties largely shielded from public space but also ubiquitous in public discourse.

In that sense, MacLeish’s soldiers are simultaneously funny and tragic, cynical and sentimental, vulgar and upright, perhaps the appropriate disposition of people who have insight into their own lives as they are trapped between the endless deployments of Dubya’s debacle.  As such, the ethnography is a great addition to a wider literature on Iraq, meriting a spot next to journalistic accounts like David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, films like The Hurt Locker, or Ben Fountain’s novel from last year, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (I take it as a coincidence that MacLeish’s key informant “Dime” is the same name as a key character in Fountain’s novel).

But, if say, The Hurt Locker was organized around Chris Hedges’ notion that “war is a force that gives us meaning,” MacLeish’s ethnography resists war’s meaning by focusing on its discordant lived experience. If the ethnography is shaped by war’s multiple ambivalences, perhaps I can detect the largest ambivalence being MacLeish’s own. What does it mean to frame U.S. soldiers’ experience through vulnerability? What is the purpose of calling attention to the nervous, sweaty, worn-out, injured bodies of soldiers? He paints a picture of hapless soldiers that feels anthropologically good. They are trapped in a barren chain store, strip-mall universe of pick up trucks, gun stores, and Applebee’s, of empty patriotic slogans, of battered relationships, of battered bodies, and battered minds. Documenting precarity and vulnerability everywhere makes us feel like sensitive, empathetic souls. And MacLeish positions his ethnography as a work of recognition, recognition of experiences that eschew all over-determined narratives. But what kind of recognition does MacLeish seek? Certainly not recognition of service and sacrifice. As MacLeish shows, continuously being thanked for their service becomes both bane and burden for his informants. Neither heroic saviors nor perpetrators, MacLeish’s soldiers are lonely, isolated, fragile, sensitive, injured, distressed, and at times cuckolded.  Their stories are not of killing or even saving lives but of seeing others killed. MacLeish’s wounded warriors are emotionally attuned – and dare I say? – surprisingly soft.  They certainly don’t fit the Soldier’s Creed.

Maybe that is subversive enough. PTSD originated out of antiwar psychiatrists’ desire to separate Vietnam War veterans from the politicians who ordered them into a war that they should not have fought, even if it meant that the soldiers were traumatized by atrocities that they committed. With the War on Terror we witness this redux but played out in a different register in both less publicly popular and less publicly protested wars that have been largely shielded from public view.  What are the culture and political stakes of MacLeish’s ethnographic emphasis on vulnerability? He resists the idea that we should love the soldier but hate the war by calling attention to wider complicities.  And I am not sure I am on board with the liberating power of precarity. Recognizing precariousness in Butler’s sense is the ethical precondition of a new political subjectivity of enlightened awareness that fits Butler’s politics. On the other hand, MacLeish’s use of precarity is not normative like Butler’s but ethnographic. His call for recognition is consequently destabilizing because there are certain cultural and political stakes in applying theories grounded in radical political critique to the center of U.S. military power. What does it mean to portray the forces of imperialistic war of the greatest military strength the world has ever seen through a lens of frailty and fragility? Perhaps wisely, MacLeish keeps his own politics close to his sleeve and leaves it to readers to decide his ethnography’s larger implications.


Ari Gandsman is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Ottawa. 

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two invited reviews of Making War at Fort Hood. We hope to post the second review later this year.

One reply on “Kenneth MacLeish’s Making War at Fort Hood”

As a psychologist-in-training, working with OEF/OIF/OND soldiers in the VA, this looks like a must-read. Thanks for the review.

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