Zoë Wool’s “After War: The Weight of Life At Walter Reed”


After War: The Weight of Life At Walter Reed

by Zoë Wool

Duke University Press, 2015, 264 pages.

In After War: The Weight of Life At Walter Reed, Zoë Wool shares her experience working with some of the most grievously wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During a year of research from 2007-2008, Wool conducted fieldwork with amputees recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center, the military hospital complex that has become emblematic of the post-war experience of American combat wounded service members.

Before she embarks on her ethnographic portrait of life at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Wool makes explicit some important characteristics of the people and environment she describes, which are vital to understanding the context of her project. First, she notes that the overwhelming majority of her participants are male. Current critical military scholars are careful to avoid the homogenizing of the diverse uniformed members of the military as “men.” However, Wool acknowledges that the maleness of the demographic she was working with is omnipresent and the theme of normative masculinity it produces becomes central to this narrative. Wool is also clear that the experience of a decade’s worth of combat wounded veterans is quite diverse. The ratio of troops serving in either Iraq or Afghanistan shifted throughout the war, as did the prevalence of certain types of combat injury (gunshot wounds versus blast injuries from roadside bombs). Thus, there was a similarity of experience that profoundly shaped the narrative of the people whose lives are captured in this book, the overwhelming majority of whom served in Iraq and were wounded by explosions that resulted in lower extremity amputations. Finally, Wool notes that there is decidedly little said in this book about the violence and trauma experienced by civilians in the countries occupied by American forces. She is clear that this is not intended to imply that the suffering of these people does not matter and she provides some sources that give more details about the experience of Iraqi civilians.

The picture painted by Zoë Wool about Walter Reed and the lives it contains is one that stands in contrast to the extraordinary violence that maimed the bodies of the people recovering there. After trauma, pain, and loss, the residents of Walter Reed Army Medical Center seem to wander through bland domestic landscapes. The story told is the story of people who have survived something extraordinary and are struggling to make their lives as ordinary as possible.

Chapter One introduces Walter Reed and its atmosphere. The boringness of day-to-day life, artificialness of the habitable space, invasiveness of public observation, ubiquity of normative masculinity, and numerous contradictions encountered by rehabilitating soldiers are introduced. Chapter Two gives a summarized history of Walter Reed, paying particular attention to how the violence that has been present since its creation has informed its development as an icon in North American collective consciousness. Chapter Three provides a closer look at the complexities and contradictions inherent to life as a recovering combat-wounded soldier at Walter Reed, as an icon of the patriotic ideal and a human body that was broken in the realization of that ideal. Chapter Four considers soldiers’ bodies in the context of space, paying special attention to the manner in which the medicalization and mobilization of the “PTSD” diagnosis impacts its navigation. Chapter Five is an intimate view of intimacy at Walter Reed and in the lives of soldiers. Sexuality, dependency, family, and the ideal of normative domestic life dominate.

The ubiquitous theme in this book is the quest for a sense of normalcy in the lives of recuperating veterans at Walter Reed. Yet, what is often found in its place is a sense of ordinariness, a deceptively similar word that Wool uses to emphasize the distinctly extraordinary nature of life at Walter Reed, in all of its boring and unstable splendor. The “ordinary” is sometimes encountered as a device in the anthropology of suffering, drawing critical attention to “the unspectacular violence that can adhere in day-to-day living” (22). This generally implies a moral imperative to reject these ordinaries and invokes the recognition of a universal humanity that lies under superficial cultural difference. Wool does not do this in After War and it is this fact that distinguishes her book as an important ethnography, rather than just a good and well-written one. Unlike other contemporary works in the canon of military anthropology, Wool avoids grounding the injured soldiers featured in this book within the context of militarized globalization or imperialism and she resists casting them as passive victims exploited by the ever-oppressive arm of neoliberalism. Instead she describes the visceral details, to the greatest extent possible, of the embodied experience of being a wounded soldier recovering at Walter Reed between 2007 and 2008.

This is not to say that her ethnography is amoral by any means; it most certainly is not. Rather, it focuses almost explicitly on the local and, with the exception of her discussion of Walter Reed’s history in Chapter Two, it is temporally centered on the occasion of Wool’s fieldwork there. Ethical dilemmas are encountered through the book, requiring the reader to process the latent violence and systemic precarity that is interwoven in the soldiers’ lives. I became uncomfortable at one point in the reading, as Wool described her account of visiting one soldier in his room: “on his bed, he had offered to get me drunk, his wife was away, we talked about his penis… the potential of a sexual liaison was clearly written into the script of our interaction” (57). The discomfort that accompanies this narrative is intentionally situated there and ultimately serves a purpose in helping illustrate something arcane that is embedded in the subtle realities of life at Walter Reed: the awkward contradictory scenarios that conflate assemblages of wounded-warrior privilege and something very close to bare life (Messinger 2014) (57). It is from this same passage that Zoë Wool blesses us with the phrase, “Masculinity, meat, marriage, and death, all wrapped in an American flag blanket” (60).

The military, which actively utilizes periods of ritualized liminality to shape the minds and bodies of its agents (for instance Boot Camp, Ranger School, Jump School, or any other military training program where recruits enter as one thing, get broken down, indoctrinated, trained, and exit as something else) appears absurd at moments while trying to manage the severely disrupted lives of people contending with a series of binaries and contradictions (Webb 2014, 819). Military and civilian; artificial homes in a military context; families uprooted to Walter Reed to support their husbands and sons; bodies that still appear in uniform but have been transformed into something else; venerated portraits of normative masculinity that cannot walk without prosthesis or engage in sexual relations without pharmaceutical assistance; theatrical camaraderie with wounded brethren (but not really); elaborate lobster dinners from wealthy people who act inconvenienced by the special needs of wounded bodies; lives under ubiquitous assault by civilians who are belligerently determined to thank them for their service and sacrifice. Somewhere in the turbulence created by the collision of these contradictions exists the imponderabilia of these post-traumatic lives.

Readers looking for a flagrantly subversive text congeneric with Gutmann and Lutz or Joe Masco may be disappointed by After War (Gutmann and Lutz 2010; Masco 2014). Whereas the former are ethnographies of empire and the state to which human bodies are subject, Wool’s book is consistent with a contemporary movement in anthropologies of violence, which is grounded in phenomenology and embodiment. Thus, it has much more affinity with Kenneth MacLeish’s excellent Making War at Fort Hood (Macleish 2013). Zoë Wool does not directly tell us who to blame for the trauma and precarity in the lives of her informants; rather, she does her best to show us what they feel. As a military ethnographer and an anthropologist of violence and suffering, I know that many critical scholars understand this apparent lack of orientation to be an unconscionable omission in a work where the destructive manifestations of state power are so unquestionably present. Just as Zoë Wool does not tell us who to blame in her book, I will leave it up to the reader to determine how to regard this.

For anyone looking for an intimate depiction of military trauma or scholars looking for a strong example of how the rising generation of anthropologists are writing about violence, After War is a must read.


References Cited

Gutmann, Matthew, and Catherine Lutz. 2010. Breaking Ranks: Iraq Veterans Speak Out Against the War. Berkeley: University of California Press.

MacLeish, Kenneth. 2013. Making War at Fort Hood: Life and Uncertainty in a Military Community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Masco, Joseph. 2014. The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Messinger, Seth. 2014. “Wounded Warriors: The State, Healthcare, and Citizenship.” Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting for the American Anthropological Association, Washington DC. December 2014.

Webb, Christopher. 2014. “The Camouflaged Minority: Culture, Trauma, and Repatriation of the Student Veteran Diaspora.” University of North Carolina Asheville Journal of Undergraduate Research 2014: 808-821.


Christopher Webb is a PhD student in cultural anthropology at Duke University and researches militarism, trauma, nationalism, violence, masculinity, and social suffering. His current project concerns the process of reintegration into civilian society by combat veterans and focuses on how trauma and moral experience both guide and complicate this process. Christopher is also a veteran of the United States Army and served as an Infantryman in Afghanistan in 2006.