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Attachments to war

UCI professor's new book explores how medicine is used to perpetuate war

University of California, Irvine Professor and Chair of Gender and Sexuality Studies Jennifer Terry is no stranger to war. Her father served in World War Two, the Korean War and the Vietnam War—a fact that would affect her upbringing and motivate her to write her new book, Attachments to War: Biomedical Logics and Violence in Twenty-first-century America (Duke, 2017). Focusing on the recent wars waged by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, the book illuminates how biomedical logics attach Americans to a perpetual state of war.

Below, Terry discusses elements of the book, and what she hopes it will accomplish.

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We now dwell in an ongoing condition of war at home and abroad, against a nebulous and racialized enemy called “terror.” My book, Attachments to War: Violence and the Production of Biomedical Knowledge in Twenty-First-Century America, examines biomedical logics as they entangle Americans in this perpetual state of war. Biomedical logics are ways of reasoning that manifest in discourses, representations, narratives, and practices animated by the idea of care. Biomedical logics, I argue, interweave with neoliberal ideals that promise freedom, democracy, prosperity, and self-improvement while also lending a strange valence to war, one that sees in highly technical violence the hope of rehabilitation, regeneration, security, and the development of “humane” tactics for waging war. Biomedicine can serve to make excuses for violence, whether these excuses come in the form of knowledge that can be acquired through research on wounds and diseases or in the form of claiming that war can be carried out in efficient targeting in which only the blameful will be violated.

Attachments to War’s central argument is that war and biomedicine are in a relationship of mutual provocation whereby new forms of wounding and illness generate biomedical knowledge, and vice versa. The relationship results in an acceptance of war as a necessary condition for human advancement. Technoscientific fantasies of miraculous healing and of putatively humane war-fighting entangle violence with dreams of surpassing bodily limitations and of performing antiseptic death. The book tracks how care operates in the rhetoric of pro-war officials and analyzes how this rhetoric ties war to biomedical logics both in the actual treatment of (some and not other) wounded bodies as well as in the execution of war itself. Along the way, the biomedical industry has become an avenue for war profiteering and financial speculation. The book explores the calculated costs and benefits that influence medical decisions about whose bodies should be cared for and whose are considered expendable in this new state of war.

For many years, I considered the question of whether it is possible for Americans to meaningfully and materially oppose war when its entanglements are so diffuse and deeply rooted in the very fabric of life in this country. My personal history as it relates to this central question is what motivated me to write this book. I started the research for it in the first decade of the twenty-first century, spurred by the two massive war mobilizations undertaken first in 2002 in Afghanistan and then in 2003 in Iraq by the administration of President George W. Bush with the support of a majority of members of U.S. Congress. In the book, I focus on the period bracketed by these officially declared wars but also note that the tactics, logics, and tools of domestic policing are increasingly attached to military operations and that war, in this sense, is now never-ending and pervasive.

Attachments to War examines the realm of biomedicine as it entangles Americans in war. The medical industry and the U.S. military have a long and storied relationship. From small pox blankets to titanium limbs, their connection is enduring. As Michel Foucault noted, the genius of medicine was to make itself look apolitical, which made it all the more political. Attachments to War is an iteration of some of the specific, and sometimes horrible, ways that military medicine continues to naturalize these spheres as separate while serving political/military interests. I argue that this relationship is constitutive of the culture of the “Global War on Terror.”

A key method of the book involves recognizing what is hiding in plain sight.

I chose to focus in depth on three main areas of biomedical research: diagnosis and treatment of polytrauma (people who have been subjected to multiple traumatic injuries), prosthetics design, and infectious pathogens. My particular focus is on biomedical practices and technological innovations that are concerned with wounded or sick bodies and that produce complex connections to war. These linkages are contingent, sometimes expressed in registers of salvation through promissory gestures that speculate about the future and, in strange ways, honor war as a necessary condition for human advancement. But the promises of advancement are selective, sorted by unequal relations in an economy of life. Some lives are valued more than others. Some stand to benefit more from the biomedical war profiteering that is unleashed by the variously mobilized sentiments of fear, dread, sadness, and hope. Some are left to die.

No actor in the biomedicine-war nexus is categorically lionized or demonized in this book. Instead I frame the book as an inquiry into the dynamic field of discourses, practices, and institutions that entangle people differently, depending on a variety of factors and their location in relation to the interwoven social technologies of profession, nationality, socioeconomic class, race, and gender. In this dynamic field, notions of potency derive from the injuries caused by evolving types of weapons and strategies of force, drawing vitality, morbidity, and mortality into close contact. This is an existential reality, experienced in different ways, and an aporia that I seek to understand.

If it succeeds in its aim, Attachments to War will further our understanding of how war and biomedicine are bound together and work to loosen these binds to make way for ethical and peaceful futures.