Disabled Veterans, the State, and the Experience of Disability in Western Societies, 1914-1950

By Gerber, David A. | Journal of Social History, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Disabled Veterans, the State, and the Experience of Disability in Western Societies, 1914-1950


Gerber, David A., Journal of Social History


Social scientists and historians have found it difficult to conceptualize the processes of identity and group formation among disabled veterans of military service. The inadequacy of their analysis is rooted in an inability to make sense of the disabled veteran's history, social position, and representation in culture and discourse. This inadequacy manifests itself in at least two particularly important ways. First, in contrast to the experience of disability among the civilian disabled, at least until recent decades, the disabled veteran's experience of post-disability social integration has been a collective one that is intensely shared with his cohort of conscripted and professional military personnel. The meanings of this collective orientation have not been seriously explored. Second, problems with the conceptualization of the disabled veteran result from an inability to come to terms with his relationship, both as an individual and particularly as a member of veterans organizations, to the state. Increa singly since the nineteenth century, the state has undertaken to provide all veterans, but especially disabled veterans, with generous pensions and a vast array of medical, rehabilitation and reintegration services. It has done so with an understanding that profoundly valorizes the disabled veteran's status, for these benefits came to be conceived as a right, not a privilege, or charity, or "welfare," as that word is used pejoratively in the contemporary United States to reference public assistance grudgingly provided those considered the unworthy poor. Indeed in the twentieth century, veterans, and especially disabled veterans, whose numbers greatly increased because of a combination of the lethal violence of modem warfare and the progress of military and civilian medicine in saving lives, became both a project of the modem Western welfare state and pioneers on the frontiers of social welfare policy. Their public provisioning not only was more generous than that available to the civilian and general veterans populations, but also prefigured some programs and benefits that would become available to both the general veteran and the civilian populations at later dates, as Western welfare states expanded the scope and scale of their obligations. (1)

How this broadly ramifying relationship to the state is understood significantly influences, in turn, the understanding of the rise of group identities and group formation, including the creation of formal organizations, among disabled veterans. The goal of this article is to analyze these relationships among group, identity, and the state in the case of disabled veterans. In doing so, it challenges the view of disabled veterans prevailing in social welfare policy history, and instead advances a view of that history that is centered as much on the individual and especially the peer group experience of disability as on the state as a provider of pensions and services to disabled veterans. In making its case, the article draws on comparisons and contrasts between disabled and able-bodied veterans and between disabled civilians and disabled veterans.

Perspectives of Social Welfare Policy History

The disabled veteran's experience of disability is collective, because it has been rooted in cycles of public processes and events that provide a context for identity and group formation and formal organization on the part of the cohorts of the population that experience disability in consequence of military service. These cycles repeat themselves on a significant scale with each war through which a modern Western nation and its people pass. There have been three sources of this development: an epic historical event with significant individual and social meanings (participation and injury or illness in a war in specific historical, cultural, and political contexts); an interaction with government (as a provider of services, material benefits and symbolic recognitions); and medical treatment, rehabilitation, and social reintegration as a disabled individual. …

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