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Wounded Warriors: Contemporary Representations of Soldiers’ Suffering


There has been a long-term suspicion in religious and psychological literatures that unethical wars will have an especially detrimental impact on the soldiers who fight in them. This project examines public depictions of the psychological suffering of contemporary U.S. soldiers, evaluating their effects on public discourses about war’s ethics. The analysis shows that over the past decade, these portrayals have developed potentially detrimental effects on civic processes, limiting and constraining public debate about war’s justifiability. Furthermore, the full expression of soldiers’ varied experiences of distress also appears to be constricted, preventing insights that might emerge into the ethics of current wars.

In trying to understand how different discourses of suffering tend either to illuminate or to foreclose debates about a war’s justifiability, I draw on a variety of sources including medical discourse, political debate, advocacy materials designed to inform the public about soldiers’ post-combat struggles, and cultural accounts of soldiers’ distress in journalism, film and literature. The analysis highlights how the language and narratives used to portray soldiers’ distress have shifted dramatically over the past four decades: initially associated with criticisms of war in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, soldiers’ suffering has gradually become associated with arguments against such criticism.

The first of the dissertation’s five chapters lays out the contemporary assumption that war criticism harms veterans. Chapter 2 shows how 1970s psychological discourse made just the opposite assertion—interpreting the underlying illegitimacy of the U.S. war in Vietnam as the primary cause of soldiers’ post-combat distress. Over time, however, psychological depictions of distress lost many of their war-critical associations, as they were first codified into the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis in 1980, and then further refined to comport with evidence-based medical standards—developments which inevitably neglect variable and hard-to-measure symptoms such as ethical concerns. Chapter 3 examines how key cultural and political narratives in the 1980s further transformed public associations between a war’s illegitimacy and soldiers’ mental harm. Reagan’s prominent use of the phrase “Vietnam Syndrome,” for example, and the infamous Rambo films presented soldiers’ distress as caused by civilian neglect and antiwar sentiment. These accounts set up a new narrative, where dissenting civilians replaced war as a central cause of soldiers’ mental harm. Furthermore, war was positioned as psychologically curative, not only for the individual soldier, but for the nation as a whole.

Chapter 4 shows how war metaphors—used in military publications and the extraordinarily popular 2014 film American Sniper—position distress as an internal foe to be “defeated” via psycho-active medications and Cognitive-Behavioral therapies. These depictions allow suffering to be framed predominantly as a problem to be removed, rather than as a source of potential insight into the moral stakes of a war (as 1970s formulations suggested). Chapter 5 argues that the intrusion of military priorities and the restriction of debate are also evident in recent comparisons between suffering soldiers and the “timeless” and “heroic” attributes of ancient Greek warriors. For example, Theater of War performances of Sophocles’ Ajax aim to initiate discussions about mental health concerns and reduce the stigma associated with post-conflict mental health symptoms. While undoubtedly effective in these goals, the performances also depict war as natural and timeless, suggesting that war is beyond meaningful ethical debate.

Of course, to some, assessing the justifiability of the wars might seem better suited to other more overtly “political” settings than the cases selected above—including debates between politicians, pundits, military leaders, scholars, and journalists. Contemporary cultural scholars note, however, that soldiers’ experiences are one of the most discussed aspects of the current wars, garnering sustained civilian attention, which suggests that these discourses are tremendously influential. The analyses offered in this project suggest that the assumption that we can understand the ethics of the current wars without engaging with soldiers’ suffering is deeply flawed. However, because our contemporary accounts of that suffering are often partial or incomplete, we need to aim for more comprehensive accounts of soldiers’ experiences. And that expansion, in turn, shows that any effort to grasp the significance of soldiers’ suffering depends on engaging with debates about war’s justifiability.

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