Disabled Veterans, New Histories

This session will take place at the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting | Conference on American History in Washington, D.C. Read the full abstract and speaker information here.


John Kinder – who spearheaded the organization of this panel – has written that disabled veterans have always posed a problem in American society. While ‘supporting our troops’ has become a kind of patriotic shibboleth, the actual work involved in that support often inspires more feet-dragging than enthusiasm. In recent years, scholarship on this paradox has blossomed, and historians have explored many facets of the history of disabled American veterans, ranging from social histories reconstructing veteran’s lives, to state-sponsored rehabilitation efforts, to representation in film and literature. But while the field has steadily grown, it was clear to us – panelists John Kinder, Evan Sullivan, and Sarah Handley-Cousins, along with chair David Gerber– that there’s still much more work to be done to understand the ways in which disabled veterans – or perhaps more accurately, ideas of disabled veterans - have operated throughout American history. Therefore, instead of going back over the well-trodden ground of veteran scholarship, we aim to use this OAH panel to move the conversation forward by sparking a conversation about war itself.    


For example, Sarah Handley-Cousins is curious about the ways that Gilded Age Americans perceived connections between disability and criminality, and how this seemed to spark a panic about a (perceived) crime wave as the Union Army demobilized after the Civil War. While concerns about veteran-criminals is often associated with the post-Vietnam War era, this crime wave panic seems to indicate that fears that warfare could unlock a Pandora’s box of violent behavior has deeper roots. Evan Sullivan explores the way that nondisabled Americans sanitized and sugarcoated veterans’ struggles into triumphant stories that emphasized men’s ability to “make good.” By downplaying the very real effects of the complex neurological and sensory disabilities many World War I veterans lived with, nondisabled Americans prioritized the patriotic message that made them feel more secure – rather than the well-being of the troops. John Kinder looks at similar ideas of performative patriotism and sympathy, arguing that zoos throughout the United States regularly hosted blinded veterans to promote a culture of thankfulness in which civilians might pay lip service to war wounds without ever having to contemplate the true horrors of war. Taken together, the panel will consider the ways that the disabled veteran came to be used as a metaphor, one that allowed American society to wave their flags for wounded warriors without considering any complicity in, or responsibility for, the results of state-sponsored violence.


We also hope that this panel underscores the importance of disability history as a field. By looking squarely at the physical and psychological consequences of warfare, not only are we forced to reckon with the realities of what war inflicts on the human body but with war’s impact on humanity itself. We hope that our panel fosters a robust conversation – between panelists but also with audience members – about disability and warfare, and inspires fresh questions about the future of scholarship on disabled veterans.

Posted: November 21, 2019
Tagged: Conference, Disability, Previews