Murray Polner: Review of Kenneth T. MacLeish’s "Making War at Fort Hood: Life and Uncertainty in a Military Community" (Princeton, 2013)

tags: Princeton, books, book reviews, Murray Polner, Kenneth T. MacLeish, Making War at Fort Hood



Murray Polner, a regular HNN book reviewer, wrote “No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran” and edited and wrote “When Can We Come Home?”

Fort Hood, in Texas, is named after Confederate General John Bell Hood, who lost his arm and leg at Gettysburg and Chickamauga but was defeated at Nashville and Franklin, Tennessee. It employs 50,000 troops and civilian employees and is close by the city of Killeen, population 130,000, and which, like most military satellite cities and towns, thrives because of its location, selling food, goods of all sorts, housing, and loans, some no doubt predatory. In fact, as Kenneth T. MacLeish writes, Killeen is “more prosperous than Austin, the state capital, home to a large university and a booming tech sector.” When he asked soldiers what impression off-base civilians mistakenly held of them he was told “That we have a lot of money.”

What McLeish, assistant professor of medicine, health, and society at Vanderbilt University, has done is explore the impact of our recent wars on the military men and women and their families and loved ones. For those who have never served in the military and been burdened by its demands, Making War at Forth Hood is a humane and penetrating look in some depth at a huge military base and its military and civilian inhabitants. Some of his material is very familiar, given the combat experiences of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. But what he does that is different is put it all into context.

MacLeish frankly admits at the outset that we -- presumably himself too -- Americans “don’t know as much as we think we do about what the violence done by and visited on soldiers means for them or for us “ Dime -- a pseudonym, like all his interviewees -- is a thirty-five-year-old veteran of Iraq, married with kids, who joined up at age thirty-one so his kids would have health insurance, who tells MacLeish the first time they met,” Don’t fuckin’ leave any of this shit out.”

“We did what we could,” Dime says. “We did it so you didn’t have to go over and do it,” the only rationale he and others can hold onto. After all, in war -- the unjust as well as the just -- virtually anything goes. Randy, a wounded mid-thirties NCO with PTSD tells him that the most painful yet most gratifying part of having fought in Iraq is really “hardest to convey to someone who hadn’t been there.” He then tells MacLeish, “The best thing was taking care of soldiers, nineteen and twenty years old,” adding “Most who are fighting are children -- seventeen-, eighteen-, and nineteen-year-old kids who haven’t really seen the world yet.” When the son of a former army friend assigned to his squad in Iraq is killed he is consumed with guilt that he could not save the boy. “Randy’s story,” MacLeish comments, “is just one of many I heard in which a type of nurturing, responsible, parental love frames the lives of soldiers’ lives cut short by war.” He returns to Dime. “Fuckin’ nineteen years old, getting their asses blown the fuck up. They haven’t even felt the warm embrace of a real woman and a real relationship. ... Sorry, that sucks. In my eyes, that blows. Never being able to have kids.” Or, as Randy put it, those young troops are “just doing what they’re told.”

More than a few of Fort Hood’s families have suffered separation anxiety, troubled kids, alcoholism, ruptured marriages, PTSD and tramautic brain injuries (TBI), inexplicable suicides, debt, and recurring tours into the war zone. But it happens amid the superficially normal atmosphere of everyday life where class distinctions are very evident: “distinctions between soldier and civilian, enlisted and officer, those who had been deployed and those who hadn’t, the injured and the healthy, the green and the experienced, the ignorant and the wise, the dedicated and the lazy, those who saw combat and those who stayed inside the wire, soldiers and spouses, and men and women,” groupings which are often fluid and in a constant state of flux.

Modern military life has often proved beneficial to African Americans but racial diversity sometimes collides with daily subtle affronts, which might mean comradely joshing or, as MacLeish overheard, some nasty racial remarks when whites were alone together. Of course the Army promotes a policy of color blindness where soldiers must and do work together and function as a team. But apparently women soldiers also cause some problems for some males and even female soldiers, the latter “deeply invested in the male homosociality of Army corporate culture” and eager to be accepted by males as equals. Adds MacLeish: “I heard from many male soldiers that they were disruptive of good order, relied on their femininity as a crutch, and were generally less capable,” a sentiment shared by “many” women troops MacLeish encountered. “Dana” a female soldier, told him, “I hate females so much.” A surprising comment, because since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, an estimated 280,000 women have served, many in combat situations.

Despite strained and broken marriages and adulterous affairs, and despite MacLeish’s detached yet affecting witness to troops saying farewell as they departed for the Middle East, there is also much contentment at Fort Hood. Life goes on. Many reunions are picture perfect, some marriages are OK, and often he found the wounded and hurt comforted and perhaps healed to some extent by the love of their partners.

All the same, as everyone by now should realize, people are changed by war. Even older men like “Childs,” a National Guard chaplain in his sixties, who was hurt and suffered from tramautic brain injury with recurrent “mood swings, memory loss, and Tourett’s-like swearing fits.” At home he had a mild but frightening stroke. When his wife spotted blood on one of his boots, the blood of a soldier who died near him, he told his uncomprehending wife. “That’s Browning’s blood.” “No it’s not,” she said. “You don’t love me anymore.” His response was that he wanted to return to Iraq to be with his fellow soldiers.

All this suffering and sacrifice for a war that was dreamed up and promoted by distant ideologues, many of whom had never served a day in the military. That may be a topic for debate among civilians but politics is rarely discussed at Fort Hood, at least not when MacLeish was near. However, Ernie, an infantry NCO, criticizes visiting politicians who while in Iraq pledged support for the troops but upon their return home spoke of reducing the money flow and pulling out.

Cindy, the wife of a helicopter pilot, organized a nonpartisan military wives group critical of the Army and government for denying treatment for PTSD and TBI veterans who had received bad conduct discharges. “Most military folks are at least a little uncomfortable with this level of politicization,” Cindy, a law school graduate, explains to MacLeish: “Everybody knows what it’s like to love somebody. It’s not political. We just want someone to take care of our husbands! We can speak when they can’t.” Or as Kristen, another wife said, “In regular everyday life, you don’t have to sit around and wait to hear whether or not your husband’s dead.”

More than 4,400 U.S. troops have died and about 32,000 wounded in a war that was initially supported by most Americans, a majority of both political parties, ubiquitous think tankers, and virtually the entire print and TV mass media. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed and about two-and-a-half million fled. Today a cruel internal battle rages in chaotic Iraq between religious and political sects. For all this, no American policy maker will ever be held accountable.

But more to the point, how will we find the many billions to care for these veterans’? A question that will no doubt remain unanswered and probably forgotten as the decades pass and more young men and women are forced to fight our inevitable future wars. MacLeish’s unrivaled study is, he angrily concludes, “an argument for recognition -- for collective and social responsibility for violence done in the name of preserving the sociality that we inhabit. The logic of the gift tells us that this responsibility will never expire, so why not let it take the form of an open question?”

Indeed.



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