The Forgotten History of Disabled Veterans

Disabled veterans of the American Civil War

When a war ends, the people are always quick to celebrate the returning soldiers and to mourn the dead. Yet few ever devote much thought to disabled veterans, those who survive the war but retain some sort of permanent affliction, be it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a missing limb, or some other disability.

Disabled veterans have existed for as long as warfare itself. Assyrian records from 3,000 years ago describe soldiers with symptoms matching PTSD. Despite their constant presence and obvious importance, few commentators or academics have examined disabled veterans in any detail. To date, only one full-length book, Disabled Veterans in History, discusses the subject broadly, and even that book limits itself to modern Europe and America. Disabled veterans are a fascinating topic because they reveal a lot about how a state views war and military service. Does the state feel a duty to compensate those injured in its wars? Do states commemorate disabled veterans, or hide them away?

For much of the pre-modern world, no special rules governed the treatment of those with minds or bodies damaged by military service. Part of the reason for that lay in the relatively small and decentralized states of the premodern world, but it also lies with views on disability itself. Throughout most of human history, disability has been a routine affliction for the entire population. Poor nutrition, injury, disease, and countless other factors meant that a high portion of the population would have suffered from some kind of disability. A missing limb would not have been so unusual, and so people did not view the affliction as something requiring a special status. 

In fact, for much of history, veterans may have been less likely to have disabilities than the general population. Think about it: in professional armies (of the sort seen in ancient Rome, China, and other empires) soldiers received far better food and medical care than they could ever expect to see in civilian life. Furthermore, those with particularly severe disabilities probably could not have gained admission to the military, meaning that soldiers were certainly healthier than the population as a whole. 

You might assume that the experience of war would have caused many pre-modern veterans to be disabled, but while battle would certainly have caused its fair share of injuries, the proportion of injured to killed would have been very different from modern conflict. America’s Operation Enduring Freedom, fought in Afghanistan from 2001-2014, claimed 1,833 men killed in action, and more than ten times that number wounded in action. The actual ratio is certainly far higher, since the government figures don’t count lingering mental trauma.  In premodern warfare, on the other hand, the dead frequently outnumbered the seriously injured, to the point where historians typically don’t even bother to mention the numbers of the injured. There are a few reasons for the change. Most casualties in pre-modern warfare occurred in melee, by sword, spear, axe, or other weapons. Accordingly, if a man suffers a serious injury, he is far from medical help and close to the enemies, who are doubtless eager to finish him off. In modern warfare, by contrast, most fighting is far away and indirect, while medics are close at hand. 

Veterans may have been healthier than the public as a whole, but sometimes military service inherently caused disability. This skeleton and reconstruction of a medieval English longbowman reveals considerable bone warping and deformity caused by the stress of drawing a longbow. English longbowmen began training as children, and the bows had a draw weight of 90-110 pounds.

That said, people in the ancient world both compensated and mocked those with injuries in the same way people do today. Pliny the Elder, the Roman historian, wrote the following about disabilities. 

We are in the habit of spitting, for instance, as a preservative from epilepsy… in a similar manner, too, we repel fascinations, and the evil presages attendant upon meeting a person who is lame in the right leg.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History: The Properties of Human Spittle 

On the other hand, the Romans created a special medical discharge (missio causaria), although the designation required several years of service before the injury occurred, as well as the agreement of several doctors. 

Over time, several gradual changes began to shift the way people and governments viewed disabled soldiers. Firstly, the state began to centralize and take a deeper interest in those injured in its service. Historian Patrick Kelly has also noted that measures intended to give disabled veterans their own status and special care, “were the product of enormous rhetorical and political work to portray the [veteran] as an upright citizen deserving of help. Their advocates struggled to distinguish unemployed, physically damaged veterans from the other poor or unemployed.”

The first modern-style disabled veteran pension system appeared in England in 1593, yet even that pension was small in scale. Dr. Geoffrey Hudson estimates that only about 6,000 men received disability compensation under the act, out of a country with a population of over five million at the time. 

More recently, society has redefined what it means to be disabled. As medicine improves, the number of disabled civilians decreases, but paradoxically, the number of disabled veterans increases, as men who would have died instead live with serious injuries. As a result, for the first time, disability has become implicitly associated with military service. 

American veterans of World War One

Definitions for disability have also become more expansive. Today, about 4.7 million American veterans have a registered service-related disability, about 26% of the total population of veterans. That means about 1.47% of all Americans are disabled veterans. However, many of these disabilities are relatively minor. The US military uses a percentage system to assess disability, meaning that if your ability to work is reduced by one-fifth, you have a 20% disability score, and are entitled to a certain amount of compensation (designed to, in the words of Uncle Sam, “reflect the projected amount of lost income that results from a veteran’s disability.”

America’s highly technocratic approach to identifying and compensating disability represents how much views of disability have shifted over the years. Countries have gone from essentially ignoring disabled veterans to making them an integral part of the military system. One need look no farther than Senator Tammy Duckworth to see how Americans no longer view disabled veterans as passive victims of war. While people have legitimate complaints about disabled veterans not always receiving adequate care, or the use of veterans from propaganda purposes, the arc of history clearly bends in favor of disabled veterans.

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