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Impotent Warriors: Perspectives on Gulf War Syndrome, Vulnerability and Masculinity

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Impotent Warriors

Perspectives on Gulf War Syndrome, Vulnerability and Masculinity

Susie Kilshaw

Full Text Made available under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license with support from Knowledge Unlatched.

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282 pages, bibliog., index

ISBN  978-1-84545-526-2 25% OFF! $120.00/£85.00 $90.00/£63.75 Hb Published (December 2008)

ISBN  978-1-84545-527-9 25% OFF! $34.95/£24.00 $26.21/£18.00 Pb Published (November 2010)

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“Medical dialogues are rarely solely about medical matters but serve as a proxy for feelings about the self and the way that an individual relates to others. Indeed, the inclusion of transcripts of interviews and discussions is of particular value…a brave book that challenges popular assumptions about Gulf War syndrome; her analysis of the long-term effects of military service will serve as an important record not only for those with an interest in the armed forces, but also for researchers in the field of illness perception.”  ·  The British Journal of Psychiatry

“This is an important anthropological study, which I believe is set to become a classic. The theoretical perspectives are clearly presented and applied to compelling ethnographic material. The publication of this manuscript will make it accessible to both undergraduate and graduate students of anthropology, as well as students of political science, sociology and military studies.”  ·  Vieda Skultans


From September 1990 to June 1991, the UK deployed 53,462 military personnel in the Gulf War. After the end of the conflict anecdotal reports of various disorders affecting troops who fought in the Gulf began to surface. This mysterious illness was given the name “Gulf War Syndrome” (GWS). This book is an investigation into this recently emergent illness, particularly relevant given ongoing UK deployments to Iraq, describing how the illness became a potent symbol for a plethora of issues, anxieties, and concerns. At present, the debate about GWS is polarized along two lines: there are those who think it is a unique, organic condition caused by Gulf War toxins and those who argue that it is probably a psychological condition that can be seen as part of a larger group of illnesses. Using the methods and perspective of anthropology, with its focus on nuances and subtleties, the author provides a new approach to understanding GWS, one that makes sense of the cultural circumstances, specific and general, which gave rise to the illness.

Susie Kilshaw is a social anthropologist at University College London where she pursues her research interests in new illnesses, health scares and anxieties, military health, and trans-cultural psychiatry. She previously worked for the NHS as a clinically applied medical anthropologist on issues surrounding ethnic minorities and mental health. Since 2004 she has been Assistant Editor of Anthropology and Medicine.

Subject: Medical Anthropology Peace & Conflict Studies Gender Studies
Area: Middle East & Israel

Impotent Warriors by Susie Kilshaw is available open access under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) with support from Knowledge Unlatched.

Full Text

OA ISBN: 978-1-78533-659-1


List of Abbreviations



Chapter 1. “Desert Rats, Not Lab Rats”

  • Introduction
  • Biomedical Position on GWS
  • A Veteran’s View
  • Discussion of GWS Causes
  • Risk
  • Conclusions

Chapter 2. Chains of Causation, Chains of Knowledge

  • Introduction
  • Contested Knowledge
  • Claims to Truth and Knowledge
  • Levels of Causation
  • Meta-narrative
  • Conclusions


Chapter 3. Leaky Bodies

  • Introduction
  • Body Substances
  • Body Substances as Commodity
  • Visibility
  • Shifting Boundaries
  • Extended Boundaries
  • Leaky Bodies
  • Internal Risks
  • Conclusions

Chapter 4. “We are the Enemy”

  • Boundaries and Borders
  • Theories of Causation and the Immune System
  • Military Metaphors
  • Conclusions


Chapter 5. Veterans’ Associations

  • The Construction of GWS Narratives
  • The Role of Women
  • “You Aren’t Mad – It’s Chemical”
  • Conclusions

Chapter 6. The Disappearing Man: Narratives of Lost Masculinity

  • Semen
  • The Soldier’s Body: The Embodiment of Masculinity
  • GWS Bodies: The Disappearance of Masculinity
  • “Old Women’s Diseases”
  • Women
  • Conclusions

Chapter 7. Impotent Warriors: The Context of Narratives of Lost Masculinity

  • Military Masculinity
  • Masculinity under Threat
  • Gender Anxiety
  • Leaving the Military
  • The Military Context
  • Conclusions: Embodying Male Lack

Conclusion: GWS and World Trade Centre Syndrome

  • GWS: An Illness of Our Time?
  • Risk and Vulnerability
  • The medicalisation of Life
  • The Approach of Anthropology
  • Ethical Issues and Dilemmas
  • Conclusions


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