Public Anthropologies

In this conversation, Gina M. Pérez, author of Citizen, Student, Soldier: Latina/o Youth, JROTC and the American Dream, and Zoë H. Wool, author of After War: Weight of Life at Walter Reed, discuss the moral, political, and personal stakes of US militarism. Perez’s ethnography follows Lorain, Ohio, high school students in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program, while Wool’s tells the stories of wounded soldiers recovering in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. The two find common ground describing the moral worlds of their interlocutors and the messy politics of studying, writing, and teaching about the US armed forces.


Source: NYU Press.

Gina Pérez (GP): So, in preparation for our conversation today I pulled out your book and realized I wanted to ask how you came up with the subtitle: What do you mean by “the weight of life”?

Zoë Wool (ZW): Well, there’s three parts to that. First, Walter Reed is a situation where in many ways life itself is at stake, in a fully biosocial sense. The relationships and forms of intimacy that we understand to produce social life are being reformed and are, in turn, reforming the bodies that are being remade there. So “life” is a way of simultaneously evoking the fleshy and the social. Second, “the weight of life” is a way of signaling that those incredibly intense efforts of remaking life are universal in a certain way. As I try to show throughout the book, the particularities of these war-injured bodies matter a great deal, but, at the same time, they speak to less noteworthy predicaments of life-making. The third part of the answer is that “the weight of life” evokes the affective quality that I wanted the book to have. The basic idea is that this shit is heavy. The injured soldiers I worked with are surrounded by people who think they know about who they are, what they did, and why they did it, and all of that is heavily freighted with moral and historical baggage about war and violence. In learning how to inhabit the “afterwar,” they need to contend with all of those expectations.

GP: The last part is what I imagined your subtitle might refer to, namely the weightiness of being regarded as this exceptional person and of being assigned to this exceptional category of people. It seems this becomes a kind of burden for the people you talk to and work with at Walter Reed who don’t really want to be seen as exceptional in any way. The weightiness of this experience—the weightiness of being not just a veteran but, in particular, an injured veteran, really comes through in your book.

ZW: I’m glad to hear that. I, in turn, wanted to ask you about the place of citizenship in your work. There seems to be a tension between, on the one hand, how these young Latina students are being disciplined by the JROTC, which is a militarized and militarizing organization in a pretty Foucauldian way. And, on the other hand, how they were developing their own emergent idea of citizenship—something that had nothing to do with JROTC, but that was much more about community uplift. It seems like these students are recognizing themselves as part of a community that is highly stigmatized and not seen as entitled to a good life or a future, and are reshaping, repurposing the JROTC for their own collective purpose to challenge that. That seemed to be where the “citizen” in your title came in.

GP: Yes! The idea of citizenship was actually not a central question when I started researching JROTC. In my previous work, in Chicago, I was much more critical of JROTC and regarded it as a nefarious pipeline to military recruitment that felt overdetermined for a lot of young Latinos, given their limited options and hypercriminalization. Coming to northeast Ohio and doing my research in Lorain, Ohio, really opened things up for me since there were different kinds of challenges and opportunities available to Latina/o youth from Chicago. As I talked to students in Lorain about what they get out of JROTC, I noticed they kept talking about citizenship and routinely invoking the motto of the program: “To Motivate Young People To Be Better Citizens.” I was really surprised to hear students talk about citizenship in such direct ways. They often referred to the volunteer work they did at the school or in their local churches as examples of being good citizens, for example. And the more I spoke with them, it was clear that they thought a lot about what it means to be a citizen. This focus on citizenship wasn’t something that drove my work initially, but after spending time with them, listening to them talk about the program, and looking at the JROTC curriculum and how the teachers develop various topics in it, the meaning and idea of citizenship became central to the book.

ZW: The discussions of citizenship in your book kept making me think about the “American dream.” In my book, I write about this sort of unmarked American ordinary that is pulling people along, the idea of a “good life” imagined to be on the horizon even though people won’t really get there. It’s an American dream, extremely heteronormative and marked as white. The whiteness of this heteronormative fantasy is also a particular articulation of middle classness, the apotheosis of which is the conjugal couple and the domestic unit forming around it. I think the American dream that emerges in your book is different from that in important ways.

GP: Indeed. Young Latinos and Latinas in Lorain, Ohio—and also in Chicago—are acutely aware of how their bodies are constantly being read and scrutinized. One of the things that became clear to me when I first did research on displacement and migration in Humboldt Park in Chicago was that young Latinos in gentrifying neighborhoods constantly discuss how they are read by local law enforcement and how they are imagined as a threat to a new social, racial, and gentrified landscape that needs to be sanitized. It is from that lived experience of surveillance and suspicion—where they are constantly read as dangerous and threatening—that they then experience a radical transformation by wearing the cadet uniform. The way their bodies are read is transformed, and suddenly they feel like they are regarded as someone positive and worthy of respect.

ZW: That was something that really struck me in your discussion of how the students inhabited the uniform. They complain about it being hot and polyester, but they also said it felt like a superhero costume: you put it on and you stand straighter and people look at you in a different way. But there is an ambivalence, too, since some of the students talk about the JROTC and the uniform as a kind of “play”—playing on the cultural capital of American militarism, but not really having it, or maybe not deserving it. Perhaps ironically, the injured soldiers I worked with at Walter Reed were trying to work their way out of that same ambivalence. For them, being interpolated as worthy, self-sacrificing patriot heroes is a profound form of misrecognition.

By contrast, the positive possibility you describe as tied to the JROTC seems particularly important—especially for the Latinas you worked with. You have this really interesting discussion about “handling one’s business” and the way that JROTC offers Latinas in particular forms of authority but also propriety outside of what is available to them otherwise. And it’s really interesting to think about how this form of military discipline is producing women of a certain kind. Because, of course, in my work and a lot of other work on the military, the focus is on making men. To think about the particular form of femininity that is being cultivated here is really interesting.

GP: Absolutely. The students often discussed not only the large number of young women in the program but also why it was that so many young Latinas held all the leadership positions in JROTC. They would explain that this was because girls are more detail-oriented, and they are more responsible and more mature [laughs]. It’s somehow ingrained in them in many ways that being a leader in JROTC is exactly what is expected of these Latinas. They are seen as being put-together, they are organized, they get things done, they handle their business. The assumption is that JROTC is this incredibly patriarchal and sexist institution that is oppressive to women. And, instead, for these Latinas, JROTC has created surprising spaces of autonomy while preserving and allowing them to fulfill these different gendered cultural expectations.


GP: I have to say, teaching about the military and militarism at Oberlin College has been a really interesting experience. I don’t know what it’s like at Rice where you teach, but at Oberlin the challenge is often to get them to not just appreciate and accept that people might hold very different opinions about the military than they do, but to truly understand how people can come to radically different perspectives with regard to military service and their relationship to the military. This means recognizing that JROTC participants are making informed choices and that they are motivated by the same kinds of ideals that inspire Oberlin students to serve others and make the world a better place.

One of the lessons of the last election and its aftermath—particularly, the fact that so many (white) liberals and progressives were surprised by the outcome—is that no critical politics should take the alignment of seemingly progressive positions for granted.

It reminds me of David Graeber’s An Army of Altruists, where he challenges peace and counter-recruitment activists to understand that working-class youth—in my case, working class Latina/o youth—turn to the military as a way to do something meaningful and noble in their lives, just as counter-recruitment and other activists do. I find that people want clear-cut answers when it comes to JROTC. They want to know if it’s a good program they should support or a bad program. Is it something you want your child to do or is it something that you don’t want your child to do? People ask me that question all the time. I think these questions come from a lack of imagination and a profound lack of feeling for others that prevents people from understanding how they can come to radically different choices.

Source: Duke University Press.

ZW: That was one of the things I appreciated so much about your book. It’s not going to give you easy answers. As a result of that, it becomes a book that challenges comfortable liberal and progressive positions in relation to American militaries. This is so essential, as one of the lessons of the last election and its aftermath—particularly, the fact that so many (white) liberals and progressives were surprised by the outcome—is that no critical politics should take the alignment of seemingly progressive positions for granted. One of the most important things you do in your book, I think, is to open up in so much fine-grained detail how questions of race and class and gender and generation and nativity are part of the way kids are making decisions about if and how to participate in JROTC and the military. You cannot reduce any of that to a facile understanding of the military-industrial complex or recruitment brainwashing.

GP: Absolutely. And this is one of the most challenging things about doing this kind of research. Throughout the process, I have thought a lot about how many anthropologists, including Catherine Lutz, Hugh Gusterson, and Roberto Gonzalez, have both called on anthropologists to engage with questions of militarism, but have also warned about the distinctions between an anthropology of the US military and an anthropology for the US military. As anthropologists, we are constantly confronted with the real lives and people we work with while simultaneously using our ethnographic practice to critique militarism and military power. As I was doing my research, I developed an incredible amount of respect for the young people I worked with, as well as the JROTC instructors, and developed a deep appreciation for how savvy they are and the incredible amount of work they are doing intellectually, emotionally, politically, and socially in navigating all these institutions, their schools, JROTC, their churches. And these young people are pragmatic because they recognize that things are pretty much stacked against them at every level. Talking to students made me realize how important ethnographic engagement is because, in the end, it is much more complicated and much messier than people might like us to believe.

ZW: Yeah and I think that’s what helpful about the blooming ethnographies of the various pockets of the American military (for just a few examples, see Jose Vasquez, Chris Webb, Ellen Moore, Ken MacLeish, Erin Finley, or Sarah Hautzinger and Jean Scandlyn). They complicate our public understanding of what we mean when we talk about “the military” or “the army.” Some people have said about my book, in a disappointed way, “oh this is not an antiwar book.” It’s totally true. I didn’t sit down to write this book as part of an existing antiwar project. And yet, if someone read my book and said that it produced great swells of patriotism in them and they wanted to run out and call a soldier a hero or cheer on a war then I would feel like something had gone terribly wrong.

GP: That is the beauty of your book and why I think it represents some of the best of public anthropology. For the past decade, I have been obsessed with Andrew Bacevich’s work about militarism and the ways the American public, politicians, and others who usually have very little connection to the US military have come to revere it as an institution. And I think yours is the kind of book he would regard as an important corrective to the nostalgia and romanticization many feel that positions the military as virtuous and diametrically different from the rest of us civilians who are selfish. Bacevich is really concerned with the widening military-civilian divide, but in a very different way than say, David Brooks, who has an overly romanticized notion of soldiers and, in your case, wounded soldiers. Bacevich explains carefully why we need to bridge the gap and how we might do so. So when I read Andrew Bacevich, it reminds me of how important your work is because it does not romanticize wounded soldiers and does not reduce them to stereotypes of victims. When I read Bacevich’s work I am so taken, given his intellectual journey and personal experiences, how important it is for him to be publicly engaged in this dialogue and how we need the kind of writing you do to debunk really powerful myths that actually sustain war and war making. And your book does that in a way that is beautifully written and moves us away from this more facile way of thinking about veterans and their lives. The way you do this is all about that messiness. People’s experiences are messy and people’s motivations are messy. And in such a beautifully written book, what you are dealing with is just a bunch of messiness. There are messy bodies, there are messy relationships, and messy feelings.

ZW: I’m really glad to hear that. One of my hopes is that this kind of text might open up a space for a different kind of ethical relation between readers and those who populate a text—a politically situated and affectively felt relation. It’s a response to a certain failure of imagination that is one of my ethical hang ups. People say “I can’t imagine what it must be like to go to war and become injured” or “I can’t imagine how someone would volunteer for the military after Iraq.” That failure of imagination to me is a failure of ethical engagement. It’s a failure of the attempt to understand the contingencies that shape a person’s life, which are actually not that difficult to understand, and it’s a failure to understand the way their lives and yours are implicated in each other’s.

GP: Yes, that “failure of imagination” exhibited when people struggle to understand the motivations and experiences of veterans is very similar to what I’ve confronted when presenting my work on JROTC. My goal is to capture the complex motivations of young Latinos and Latinas who think about the military as part of their future. And depending on the audience, it is surprisingly hard to get people to understand this as a reasonable option. For me, that’s a failure of imagination and also a failure of empathy. In other words, it is an inability to understand and appreciate the different ways people come to decide how they are going to navigate their lives and how they are going to make choices that might challenge what others understand to be the right and most politically sound choice.

ZW: I think that is the sort of thing that ethnography has to offer all sorts of public conversations: the messiness of experience. That is especially important when we are working with people who are so overdetermined in such a public way.

I don’t see it as my job as an anthropologist and ethnographer to respond in the language of public policy, or even in the language of public political debate. I hope that my ethnographic work can inform those conversations and I participate in those conversations in other ways, as a citizen, as a teacher, but not as an ethnographer. What I have are minute-by-minute experiences and feelings and strange hard-to-put-into-words senses, and I see it as my job to convey all of that and hopefully in conveying all of that the cumulative effect is a picture of the world that produces friction in conventional political debates, particularly around questions of American war and militarism. Anthropologists, of course, aren’t the only ones to do this. I’m thinking of photography and film, in particular. Take Hell and Back Again, or Restrepo. One of the things Tim Hetherington said about Restrepo was he hoped it would offer a different entry point into conversations about what war is. I guess messiness is a way of doing that. That kind of friction or discomfort or frustration—indigestion, Donna Haraway might call it—is one of the most productive things we can offer both within the academy and beyond.

Gina M. Pérez is a professor of comparative American studies at Oberlin College
Zoë H. Wool is an assistant professor of anthropology at Rice University

Front image credit: Linda Makiej, posted on

Pérez, Gina M., and Zoë H. Wool. 2017. “Ethnography and the Militarization of the American Dream: A Conversation Between Gina M. Pérez and Zoë H. Wool.” American Anthropologist website, September 19.

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