Persons Under Seige
Sergeant Cory Remsburg at the State of the Union address, January 28, 2014. Photograph via Defense.gov
by Ashley James
It seemed that by the close of January this year, the entire United States population could recognize the face of Sergeant Cory Remsburg: Near the tail-end of his State of the Union address, President Obama recounted the man’s near death by roadside bomb during his 10th deployment in Afghanistan—“[his] comrades found him in a canal, face down, underwater, shrapnel in his brain”—and the staggering subsequent gains made by the sergeant following the injury, which placed him in a coma for three months and found him partially blind and paralyzed. The details of Remsburg’s remarkable and ongoing recovery—“dozens of surgeries,” “grueling rehab every day”—drew the entire chamber to its feet, compelling a bipartisan standing ovation that lasted an entire two minutes. Buttressed by his father and the First Lady, Remsburg himself stood amidst the crowd, reciprocating the enthusiasm afforded him as he smiled and waved back at the Congressmen, his face proud and affecting. Following the State of Union address, the media was as equally taken with Sgt. Remsburg as Congress was, for the gushing headlines followed: “War Hero at State of the Union”; “Sgt Remsburg Is SOTU Speech’s Biggest Star”; “Army Ranger Cory Remsburg Steals Spotlight at SOTU.” Profiles of Remsburg proliferated with the country in awe of the man’s exceptional “resilience” and “heroism” in the face of severe war injuries.
Six months later, Republican politicians and conservative pundits would appear on cable news to undermine the validity of another US soldier’s service.
When it was revealed that POW Bowe Berghdal was released in exchange for five Taliban prisoners on May 31st of this year, a number of Congressmen charged that this deal could potentially endanger Americans in the future. Florida Representative Allan West went so far as to assert that the president’s “unilateral negotiations with terrorists and the ensuing release of their key leadership without consult…[is] an impeachable offense.” But while this accusation of poor judgment can and should primarily be understood as an attempt to discredit the Obama presidency rather than Bergdahl himself, it is the parallel accusations of Bergdahl’s desertion that render the matter entirely personal and seemingly unprecedented. Michigan Representative Mike Rogers, for instance, alleged that “[Berghdal] was not a prisoner of war; he was with the Haqqani network, which is a terrorist organization,” and Maine Senator Susan Collins mused that “It’s very interesting to me that they would be willing to release five extraordinarily dangerous Taliban members in exchange for this soldier who apparently left his post.” Even as base motive for both of these accusations are similar—to undermine the presidency—it is unusual to observe this rhetorical warfare lodged at the level of the individual serviceman. It is especially striking when viewed within the context of the last few months: For as Remsburg lay awash in praise at the top of the year, just six months later Bergdahl will receive the direct opposite response by Republicans—a contrast crystallized by the fact that Bergdahl’s own celebration, “Welcome Home, Bowe” was cancelled for fear of protests and safety breaches.
In the wake of this Bergdhal defamation there seems to be a stark shift in American politics as we know it, where rhetorical support for soldiers no longer lies at the limit of political slander. As the Remsburg coverage attests, military support has long been the litmus test of national fidelity: to not display sufficient support for troops would be to quite practically kiss one’s political career goodbye. Though politicians who’ve served in the military have seen themselves caught in the political crossfire—the 2004 “swiftboating” of John Kerry as one such example—Berghdal‘s vexed reception on the other hand is an exceptionally jarring example of politicians’ willingness to question the character of a serviceman outside the political sphere in the interest of political gain. Indeed, Representative Duncan Hunter of California went so far as to compare Berghdal to the former presidential candidate: “As John Kerry threw his medals over the White House fence and turned his back on all of his Vietnam brothers and sisters, that’s what Bergdahl did,” said Hunter. “Bergdahl walked away from his men and he left them in a bad spot. People lost their lives or got hurt trying to find him.” But while excessive, the slander of Bergdahl cannot be read as an aberration, but as a precisely typical event within a post-Citizens United US crisis of personhood.
Following the State of the Union address back in January, I was one of thousands who, intrigued by Obama’s speech, went in search of articles that might provide me with more information on Sgt. Cory Remsburg and his recovery. After skimming a few short pieces from a number of news sites, I came across a heavily trafficked New York Times article that was published in August of 2013—“President and Soldier: 3 Meetings, and a Lesson in Resilience.” The story recounted Remsburg’s remarkable story, and while reading the article, I was struck again by the extent of Remsburg’s injuries—partial paralysis, brain damage—and the fact that Remsburg received these injuries on his 10th deployment, a staggering statistic. Yet, rather than using these facts to reflect on the stunning consequences of war for this particular man, the article chose to highlight the exceptional circumstances of Obama and Remsburg’s meetings instead: it focused on the rarity of a president meeting a single soldier on three separate occasions, both pre- and post- injury. The oddity of Remsburg’s relationship with the president took precedent over the spectacular violence the man endured, reminding of the ways in which the harsh realities of soldiers’ personal struggles are subsumed by the spectacle of triumphant story. Obama’s own State of the Union address echoed this tendency, as the extent of Remsburg’s injuries was recounted as a lesson in resilience for the entire nation.
But it was a specific phrase found in the article that made the iniquity of this process never clearer to me. Located near the middle of the article, as the author attempts to account for the impact of Obama’s meetings with Remsburg, she writes that:
For Sergeant Remsburg, the meetings have been ‘very humbling,’ he said in a phone interview last weekend. For Mr. Obama, the soldier has come to personify the challenges endured by more than 50,000 men and women wounded in the two wars of the last decade, many facing recoveries that “will last a lifetime,” as the president recently said.
According to the OED, personification is “The attribution of human form, nature, or characteristics to something; the representation of a thing or abstraction as a person.” If to call a non-human thing human is to personify, then in the context of this article, the non-human “challenges” faced by humans (soldiers) are made human by one of the actual humans who is facing these very challenges—Sgt. Remsburg himself.
To be able to conceive of Sgt. Remsburg “personifying challenges” requires a bit of mental gymnastics, as it means imagining Remsburg as somehow separate from these very challenges that he only later makes visible. Indeed, when I was taught “personification” in my middle school classroom, we learned it within the context of connection. For, if one can define the impetus or even a kind of ethics for the literary use of the term, it is to bring persons closer to non-human entities; it is to foster greater empathy toward non-human beings by likening them to human beings. Then asserting that Remsburg “personifies” these challenges is to use his personhood rhetorically in the interest of rendering him what he already is: a person.
While the use of personification in the context of Remsburg is a linguistic misstep factually, the use of the term reveals conditions much more insidious, as it tells us something about how we perceive war, and the effects of these perceptions on policy in turn. Such language indicates that actual persons make it into conversations of war far after the fact of injury, not before. That even as we’ve deployed soldiers overseas by the thousands, these soldiers are not “people” until they’ve returned—and have returned injured at that. Just one month following the State of the Union ovation, Senate Republicans first rejected a Veterans Affairs bill sponsored by Bernie Sanders, one that was backed by every major veterans group and sought to enact wide expansions of several veteran benefits. Concerned that the package would cost too much, the Republicans killed the bill.
Now that the recent audit of the Veterans Affairs department has revealed that more than 57,000 veterans had been forced to wait more than three months for their first appointments for medical care, veteran negligence has never been clearer to the public. And it is only following the release of the shocking VA audit figures that politicians finally chose to act, passing VA reform in both the House and the Senate (in the form of the “Veterans Access to Care Act of 2014” and the “Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014,” respectively) back in June. Currently, the reform is at a halt as the struggle for how the bill will be funded continues. The uneven trajectory of this new legislation bears little resemblance to the surety and passion with which the Congressmen applauded Sgt. Remsburg back in January, as some 64,000 veterans still languish on lists whose lengths only continue to grow, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have just released new statistics that reveal that of 2,000 post 9/11 veterans polled, 7% know at least one Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who has attempted suicide, 40% know someone who has died by suicide, up 3 points from 2013, 31% say they have thought about taking their own life, and 53% say they have a mental health injury.
As Bergdahl’s defamation and Remsburg’s “personification” attests, we are in a crisis of personhood, so abstracted from the needs of the individual being that it takes the maimed body of a single soldier to remind us of the humanity of all those who remain anonymous. So abstracted that even a former POW might be deemed unconvincingly tortured. Even as Bergdahl’s defamation seems particularly excessive, it rests on the same spectrum as that of the effusive celebration of Remsburg—two soldiers whose personhoods have been not only diminished abroad, but at home, even if on different scales and by different means.
The failure to bring about proper VA reform reflects broader trends in the American political sphere that while surely not new, are becoming increasingly normalized, with this summer’s Supreme Court Hobby Lobby evincing such a trend. But VA reform in particular might especially reflect this perversion, as politicians appear more scandalized by proliferating medical debts than deaths themselves. That what even disturbs these politicians are not the beaten, bruised and maimed bodies of soldiers, but the “unreasonable” amount of money their recoveries require. That there are war-torn sergeants who are saluted for their service one month, while the funding of their recoveries is denied in the next. The floundering of VA reform reveals that power is in the hands of people for whom diminishing dollar signs might be more traumatic than trauma itself. Even our language accepts this.
About the Author:
Ashley James is a joint doctoral student in the English Literature and African American Studies departments at Yale University. She is completing a dissertation on the Black Arts Movement and form.