Combat Trauma

Combat Trauma:Imaginaries of War and Citizenship in post-9/11 America

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Americans have long been asked to support the troops and care for veterans' psychological wounds. Who, though, does this injunction serve?
As acclaimed scholar Nadia Abu El-Haj argues here, in the American public’s imagination, the traumatized soldier stands in for destructive wars abroad, with decisive ramifications in the post-9/11 era. Across the political spectrum the language of soldier trauma is used to discuss American warfare, producing a narrative in which traumatized soldiers are the only acknowledged casualties of war, while those killed by American firepower are largely sidelined and forgotten.

In this wide-ranging and fascinating study of the meshing of medicine, science, and politics, Abu El-Haj explores the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder and the history of its medical diagnosis. While antiwar Vietnam War veterans sought to address their psychological pain even as they maintained full awareness of their guilt and responsibility for perpetrating atrocities on the killing fields of Vietnam, by the 1980s, a peculiar convergence of feminist activism against sexual violence and Reagan’s right-wing “war on crime” transformed the idea of PTSD into a condition of victimhood. In so doing, the meaning of Vietnam veterans’ trauma would also shift, moving away from a political space of reckoning with guilt and complicity to one that cast them as blameless victims of a hostile public upon their return home. This is how, in the post-9/11 era of the Wars on Terror, the injunction to "support our troops," came to both sustain US militarism and also shields American civilians from the reality of wars fought ostensibly in their name.

In this compelling and crucial account, Nadia Abu El-Haj challenges us to think anew about the devastations of the post-9/11 era.


  • A bracing, riveting, and vitally important critique of American empire and the ideological mechanisms for normalizing permanent warfare. Few authors have considered the psychosocial and ethical instruments of imperial warfare with such clarity or looked so directly at US culpability in the War on Terror. Every single US taxpayer should read this book.

    Joseph Masco, author of The Future of Fallout
  • In this path-breaking book, Abu El-Haj examines changes in the understanding of combat trauma to demonstrate that psychiatry, operating in tandem with imperial interventions, helps create the political conditions necessary for the reproduction of U.S. militarism. With her finger on the pulse of American political life, she shows how perpetrators become victims, while the primary casualties of American military violence are ignored, dismissed, and forgotten.

    Lisa Wedeen, author of Authoritarian Apprehensions