PBS doc featuring Penn historian illuminates human cost of war

The cost of war is not limited to the price of tanks, training, and technology. In modern warfare, much of the expense accrues after the battles are completed, when injured troops come home and require ongoing, costly medical care. These post-war costs are not just financial, but moral.

On Tuesday, Nov. 10, the eve of Veteran’s Day, the film “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans in American History” will air nationally on PBS, bringing to light the human cost of war. The documentary, directed by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Ric Burns, features Beth Linker, an associate professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science in the School of Arts & Sciences, who lent her expertise on the history of disability and war studies to the work. The film includes interviews with additional scholars as well as disabled veterans, notably U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and former U.S. Senator Max Cleland (D-GA). Duckworth lost both her legs during the Iraq War; Cleland lost his legs and right forearm during the Vietnam War.

Linker’s research on veterans and disability, detailed in her book “War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America,” concerns how the United States has cared for injured soldiers, and how disabled veterans have been viewed by society.

“By 1910, the cost of Civil War pensions had outpaced the cost of the actual war,” she says. “It became this economic calculus: Do we want to get into wars if we’ll still be paying for them 50 and 60 years later?”

Another pension system was politically and financial untenable, so in 1914, Congress passed legislation creating the War Risk Bureau, the precursor to what would become the Veteran’s Administration.

“The theory was that we could get rid of this kind of pension system and instead rebuild and remake injured soldiers using modern medicine so they wouldn’t need to rely on pensions,” says Linker.

Originally the Bureau was envisioned as a money-saver, Linker says, but as veterans began to return home with serious injuries such as amputations and chronic conditions including colitis and post-traumatic stress disorder, or so-called “shell shock,” it quickly became obvious that treating these men was going to be a long-term and costly commitment.

Linker’s interest in this area of history was sparked after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Following a period of relative peace, she noticed that images and news coming back from the battlefield were sometimes censored to shield Americans from the human costs of the conflict, just as they had been during World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Sedition Act into law.

“A lot of historians have looked at military history, but few address the actual human beings who fought in wars and came home with long-term disabilities,” she says. “How these issues of war and veterans’ care played out historically is crucial to understanding today’s debates.”

“Debt of Honor” will premiere locally on WHYY at 9 p.m. on Nov. 10.

Debt of Honor