The Human Machinery of War

Photograph: Veteran with Crutches and One Leg Amputated Stands on Beach with Small Boy Looking at a Bridge in the Background

Original Title/Caption: “Disabled veteran.”


Description: In this black and white photograph, a veteran in uniform and a small boy stand on a beach with their backs facing the camera.  The veteran’s right leg has been amputated at the knee.  He holds his weight on one crutch and a large stone.  The unused crutch rests on the stone.  The boy stands next to the veteran with his hand stretched out to the crutch that holds the veteran’s weight.  A bridge is visible in the background.  This photograph was taken around 1943.


Source: “Disabled veteran.”  Photograph, ca. 1943. From the National Archives, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Series: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, 1882 - 1962. (accessed March 20, 2007).


Historical discussion: According to historian David A. Gerber, “With a sharply divided consciousness that both honored the veteran and feared his potential to disrupt society, Americans in 1945 prepared to receive and reintegrate millions of demobilized men.  The return of the disabled veteran gave rise to particularly acute anxieties, for his difficulties in adjusting to civilian life would be compounded by his injuries” (Gerber 70).

Scholar Albert E. Cowdrey contends, “The postwar medical systems that treated veterans reflected their political influence and the compassion or bad conscience of civilians, not the needs of armies present or future.  The medical systems did more than support the fighting strength; through them, the demands of humanity overlaid and mingled with the destructive impulses of war” (Cowdrey 8).

While home front propaganda metaphorically linked industrial accidents to disaster for individual soldiers, the legislation passed and programs developed to benefit disabled veterans would help to set the groundwork for policy initiatives and expand opportunities for disabled civilians. 

See David A. Gerber, “Heroes and Misfits: The Troubled Social Reintegration of Disabled Veterans in The Best Years of Our Lives,” in Disabled Veterans in History, ed. David A. Gerber, 70-95 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000); Albert E. Cowdrey, Fighting for Life: American Military Medicine in World War II (New York: The Free Press, 1994).