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How to feel about war: On soldier psyches, military biopolitics, and American empire

Abstract

The basic structure of contemporary military biopolitics, in which military bodies and minds are kept alive and allowed to die, entails both an institutional problem of how to shore up life that is exposed to harm and a cultural problem of how to reckon with a routinized trade in life and death that happens not incidentally, but on purpose. Amidst this tension, the military psyche becomes both an inhabited, embodied site and an imaginative point of reference for the question of how to feel about war. This article takes stock of the contemporary landscape of war-related mental affliction via three relatively novel interventions: military suicide prevention, the framing post-traumatic stress as “moral injury,” and resiliency training meant to inoculate soldiers against the stress of the battlefield. Drawing on a range of clinical and media sources and ethnographic research with post-9/11 military personnel, I show how each of these efforts constructs specific forms of war-related psychic destruction as objects of public and institutional concern, normalizes the institutional arrangements that produce it, and informs public perceptions of what war is by constructing figures of what it does to those who fight it.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

From Peterson et al. 2011

Notes

  1. But on the former, see Kieran n.d., and on the latter, Howell 2014, 2015.

  2. This project included over a year of continuous participant observation in 2007-08 and numerous follow-up visits in the following two years. Over the course of this time, I also conducted approximately 50 interviews with soldiers, military spouses, and military and civilian service providers and advocates. All participants are referred to here by pseudonyms and some identifying information is changed to protect their identities in accordance with an IRB-approved set of privacy and confidentiality practices.

  3. This problematic and widely debated figure originates from a 2012 VA study whose own authors caution against its over-generalization because of the relatively limited data underlying it (Kemp and Bossarte 2013); see Lee 2015 for a thorough critique. A more recent study revises this estimate down to 20 per day (Shane and Kime 2016).

  4. See the DodSER web site at http://t2health.dcoe.mil/programs/dodser; the NIMH-Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers (Army STARRS) at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/suicide-prevention-studies/army-study-to-assess-risk-and-resilience-in-servicemembers-army-starrs-a-partnership-between-nimh-and-the-us-army.shtml; and the STARRS Longitudinal Study (STARRS-LS) at http://starrs-ls.org/#/.

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Acknowledgements

Portions of this work have been presented as conference papers at meetings of the American Anthropological Association, the American Ethnological Society, the Society for Cultural Anthropology, and the Society for the Social Studies of Science, and benefited greatly from the generous input of colleagues in those settings. An early draft was presented at the workshop Contested Global Biopsychiatry: Establishing an International Partnership for Critical and Constructive Global Mental Health, held at Vanderbilt University in February 2015. Research and analysis were supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, a National Institute of Mental Health Postdoctoral Traineeship, a Robert Penn Warren Center for the Study of the Humanities faculty fellowship, and research funds from the University of Texas at Austin and Vanderbilt University. Special thanks to Dominique Béhague, Aimi Hamraie, Rachael Pomerantz, Laura Stark, Juliette Wagner, and Zoë Wool for their support and feedback. Thanks to David Kieran for sharing his insights about the Gold Book and to Ellen Wang for research and bibliographic support. And thank you to the editors of Biosocieties and the three anonymous reviewers of this piece. This manuscript is composed of material that is not under review elsewhere. The study on which the research is based was subject to appropriate ethical review by the institutional review boards of the author’s home institutions. The author has no competing financial or intellectual interests in the research described in this manuscript.

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MacLeish, K. How to feel about war: On soldier psyches, military biopolitics, and American empire. BioSocieties 14, 274–299 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-018-0127-y

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Keywords

  • War
  • US military
  • Biopolitics
  • Moral injury
  • Suicide
  • Resilience