War Veterans, the American Bureaucratic Machine, and the Continuing Cultural Exclusion of Affect

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Watching CNN yesterday morning I got very sad and angry thinking about the affectless, bureaucratic nightmare that physically and psychologically injured or disabled living American vets frequently have to endure, in return for having put their lives on the line; or that surviving dependent families of veterans who have to endure on top of having lost their loved one. While there is a decent amount of visibility about the challenges of the return and transition home for the visibly or invisibly injured veterans, the inadequacy in care is glaring.

Upon their return and transition home, injured vets lack appropriate initial and ongoing care, especially when their injuries are invisible and psychological. And the stories of surviving families that have to fight to retain their health benefits are appalling.

Part of my strong reaction is of course rooted in the fundamental grief that war itself causes me. Another part of my outrage is linked to my own litany of grievances against our health insurance system, especially when it comes to issues of mental health coverage, and the coverage of medical treatments called “alternative.”

The frequently mute and bureaucratic, though no less outrageous, injustices that vets encounter in place of proper health and mental care are reflective of all that is so wrong with the institutionalized perpetuation of enlightenment humanism—the disciplined and hierarchical separation of reason from affect and of the mind from the body, toward the construction of an idealized “idea-l” (as in, not rea-l) human subject—a definition that has lent itself quite readily to the bureaucratic understanding of the political citizen subject, war veterans inclus.

It is paradoxical that the military is supplied and endowed with all the latest technological sophistication available, and yet the affective and nonrational components of their needs are so readily overlooked. It serves as a painful reminder that the ideology of the Enlightenment and the redemptive dream of empirical reason is entrenched and perhaps even inherent in our national institutions. And perhaps, indeed, it is this prevailing definition of the subject that does not account for affect, which is intricately related itself to the affective violence that war and its repercussions bring to bear.

Trish’s paper, “The Pleasure of Death: The Construction of Masculine Citizenship in Military Recruitment Ads,” (new window) published last spring, is instructive toward further understanding the relationship between enlightenment humanism, war and ideal subjecthood and citizenship. The paper, which derives its analysis from Freud’s work on the death drive, the pleasure principle and the uncanny, tells us:

Enlightened ideals and war are bound together, although contradictory, as inextricable aspects of our society […] civilization and war are dialectically related to each other so that the dominant element always conceals or marginalizes that which constructs and sustains it. In times of peace, the ideals and aspirations of a nation conceal a predilection toward war. In times of war, the possibility that men are all civilized and humane is marginalized by sheer aggression and violence. Discourses of idealized citizenship reflect the dialectic opposition between enlightened nations and war.

Drawing the parallel, as Trish does, between the relationship of enlightened nations to war and the discourse of idealized citizenship (here portrayed in military recruitment ads) leaves the affective body of the soldier to bear the brunt of this ultimately nonviable paradox.

The most grievous and traumatic paradox for the idea-l/ized citizen comes in, of course, with mental illness as straddling the line between mind and body, an overflow of pathology into the seemingly impermeable space of pure rationalism in the ideal subject, rendering the subject unrecognizable to the paradigmatic definition of the human, per Enlightenment humanism. It is this unrecognizability that could well account for the gross oversights in addressing and treating these issues.

All this is to say that we’ve got a long way to go as a society, to move beyond the literally and figuratively crippling manicheanism that can be oh-so-appealing in its apparent neatness and simplicity.


Related links for further reading: