Nadia Abu El-Haj, "Combat Trauma: Imaginaries of War and Citizenship in Post-9/11 America" (Verso, 2022)


One of the most recognizable tropes in American society in the past few decades is the scarred war veteran, returning from foreign lands with wounds both visible and invisible. His experiences are incomprehensible to those who’ve not served, but we owe him everything, and it is our duty as American citizens to honor him with nonjudgmental empathy so that he might eventually heal and reintegrate into the national community. But this narrative, this response to combat is neither natural or the only possible way of dealing with the issue. In fact, my guest Nadia Abu El-Haj argues that it is a distinctly apolitical interpretation, one that works as a cover for the politics of American empire in her new book Combat Trauma: Imaginaries of War and Citizenship in Post-9/11 America (Verso, 2022).

Beginning her narrative in the 1960’s and 70’s with the war in Vietnam, El-Haj traces PTSD back to its roots as a response to extreme circumstances. In the soldiers being studied, psychologists found men who were shattered by their experiences, struggling to process them and move on when they returned home. However, key to their understanding was a sense of guilt and complicity in the war. They might’ve been damaged and in need of care to move forward with their lives, but they were still guilty of immoral and criminal acts. The diagnosis was then not just an individualized pathology but part of a broader political critique, and part of the healing process involved engaging in activism to fight the very systems the soldiers had been participants of.

Fast forward a few decades, and this political angle has almost been entirely erased. Instead, soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are no longer perpetrators but victims who bear a burden we all must honor them for. This new discourse around trauma buries the possibility of political dissent, leaving us unable to understand the decisions that produced the trauma in the first place, but also focuses so heavily on the traumatized soldier that civilians caught in the crossfire almost never factor in our understanding, in spite of the fact that they are the most numerous victims of wars in the last several decades. This combination has produced a toxic form of militarism, one incapable of sustained political critique, which helps explain why the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have been able to go on so long.

Combining fields and disciplines and tying numerous disparate threads together, El-Haj’s work is a devastatingly urgent, eye-opening critique of a society that has long lost its capacity for critical self-reflection. It reveals many ideological traps and mazes many have been lost in, and even if it cannot bring about a more peaceful world on its own, it can point the way towards a more critical one.

Nadia Abu El-Haj is a professor of anthropology at Barnard College. She is also the author of The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology and Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society.

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