Kenneth T. MacLeish's Making War at Fort Hood: Life and Uncertainty in a Military Community is a completely different kind of look inside the lives of soldiers and the process of making war--it looks at the normal lives our armed forces are trying to live, the ordinary aspects of a truly abnormal way of life.
The first story in this book is about a soldier I met when I was doing research at and around the US Army’s Fort Hood, in central Texas, in 2008. In the book I call him Dime (the identities of all of my research subject are kept confidential). He was a tank driver who had survived multiple IED strikes and firefights during two tours in Iraq. One bomb attack left him trapped inside his tank for hours while it burned. He narrowly avoided another that hit the tank in front of him, the one his best friend was driving. When Dime and his fellow soldiers went to look for survivors, he told me, his friend’s body was just gone, completely destroyed. When I met Dime he had been diagnosed with severe orthopedic damage and a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from the bomb blasts, as well as posttraumatic stress disorder. He had been transferred into a medical hold company while his complex and debilitating injuries were evaluated and treated, and his days were filled with tests, briefings and doctor’s appointments. Dime clearly took pleasure in being a soldier and cared deeply about his comrades. But he also felt frustrated and bullied. He was grieving, in pain, disoriented from his head injury, numbed and sedated by a shifting regime of drugs, and lonely—he had lost friends in the war, and his wife left him during his first deployment and took their kids. He was angrily and anxiously waiting for the Army to decide what was wrong with him and when to let him go and to see what happened after that.
Most of the war stories that civilians are familiar with hinge on what war is about—why we are fighting, whether we are winning or losing, whether we should have gone to war in the first place. Or they heap those who fight with sentiment and cliché and try to take some virtue from that. In all such stories, the violence of war and the actual work of making it appear as the exception rather than the rule. All the harm that comes with war is cast as tragedy or side effect, something that should not have happened. And the stories wrap these unfortunate events up with a beginning, a middle, and most importantly, an end.
In the time I spent talking to the soldiers, veterans, and their advocates, neighbors and families who so generously shared their lives and experiences with me, I found that these kinds of stories did not hold up particularly well. Dime’s story was not about some conclusive event or lofty theme; it was about a messy and uncertain present of aftermath, the meaning of which was not clear, or anyway not yet. Perhaps this should not be a surprise in a place where the intense and extraordinary business of making war is also ordinary and routine. Fort Hood is one of the biggest military bases in the world and the single busiest point of departure and return for US forces deployed overseas. The brigades of the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions were sent from there as in the 2006 Surge and saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war. The Army’s grueling deployment schedule of multiple 12 to 15-month tours guaranteed that for soldiers and their families war lay as much in the present and the future as it did in the past. And not just because there was no end to the war in sight five year ago, but because in military communities like Fort Hood, war is not an accident or an exception, but a matter of course, the thing that is meant to happen.
To help make sense of this state of affairs, I turned to the profound vulnerability that seemed to be one of the defining features of the work of war-making. Soldiers are vulnerable to hostile enemies and the vagaries of the battlefield, of course, but they are subject to much more ordinary and intimate forces as well: the draining physical toll of military work, the effort of conducting oneself effectively while in harm’s way, the relentless demands of Army orders and regulations. Soldiers’ very bodies, the most necessary piece of equipment for making war, often seemed under attack from several fronts at once. The ceramic plates and Kevlar of body armor, for instance, protect soldiers from shrapnel and bullets, but they also wear their bodies out and serve as a constant reminder of the danger to which they are exposed. The medical system that cares for ill and injured soldiers also places them under careful scrutiny, trying to distinguish if their pains and complaints are real and if they are worthy of care and compensation. These apparent contradictions don’t come from malice or bad faith, though—they are built in to the way that war-making is organized, and soldiers live them at the most visceral level.
These vulnerabilities are not just limited to soldiers’ bodies, though—it is shared collectively by the lovers, spouses, parents, children, and friends who are bound to them. People told me stories of the terror that can come from the sound of a phone ringing or a knock at the door when a loved one is deployed, or the discipline it takes to avoid watching or reading news about the war. War forges intense bonds between fellow soldiers and between soldiers and their loved ones. But these bonds are also tested, tried and sometimes broken by deployment and the stresses of military life. The kinds of attachment that seem universally sustaining and rewarding can become their own sources of pain, or casualties of war in their own right. And this whole entire condition is vulnerable, people at Fort Hood would say, to the misunderstanding and naïve expectations of civilians—vulnerable, that is, to those more familiar stories that we may be used to hearing and telling about war.
In these vulnerabilities, these experiences of being stuck in the middle of things in a place where war is the rule and not the exception, I hope to share a different story about war. It is one that does not offer the consolation of an end, happy or otherwise. But I hope that this will be an incitement to think about what that end could be, for the soldiers and the people who share their lives, and for us too.