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A Response to “The Other Arms Race”

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“At the end of the war, an amputated arm or leg may have provoked association between anatomical dysfunction and a lack of reliability, sturdiness, fortitude or commitment. But by the 1950’s, the utterly functionalist, aesthetically integrated, and mass-produced Dreyfuss hand offered a new kind of social prestige, as well as a new model of masculine labor” (Ott, Serlin, Mihm, 68-69).

By suggesting that a war veteran could make the transition from being disabled or inadequate to being more than just a rehabilitated and functional member of society, and actually become an icon with a brand new definition of masculinity, Serlin was identifying the fact that an artificial limb did more than just repair a damaged body. It repaired the feelings of diminished self-worth that most war veterans felt after returning home, mutilated and unable to be productively engaged in domestic or industrial environments.

“The Other Arms Race”, then, describes the pursuit by doctors and engineers to repair the damaged minds and bodies of victims of the ravages of combat in World War II, and especially in restoring a sense of masculinity. These split-hook hands could even be regarded as status symbols, some argued, much like a set of golf clubs or a Cadillac.

However, if the initial intentions were noble, developments in the fields of prosthetics and later on, in cosmetic improvements of physical defects have unfortunately led to the development of a narcissistic streak in many people who do not need corrective surgery, but subject their bodies to it in order to attain a desired status. Botox injections and silicone implants are common additives of choice, no longer used to rehabilitate maimed bodies, but to enhance what is perceived to be beauty, or youth.

There have also been interesting debates in other fields such as sports. The famed “Blade-Runner”, South African Oscar Pistorius competes in the 100-meter sprint while using prosthetic legs. Recently, he has pushed the boundaries of what may or may not constitute fair play in athletics by applying to compete against other able-bodied athletes. Some will argue that learning how to walk, then run, then  compete at events like the Olympics using prosthetics is much more difficult than using natural limbs. Others on the opposite side of the debate argue that his prosthetics give him an edge over athletes who use their legs, because he is benefiting more from research and science than actual training and effort.

Either way, the confidence that must ooze from an amputee who would want to compete against able-bodied athletes is a remarkable thing, and what may have once been Pistorius’ biggest disadvantage has become his raison d’être. He has become an inspiration to many handicapped people in his country and around the world, reengineered and corrected physically and emotionally, contributing arguably even more than many other able-bodied athletes.

Any new development in any filed will have positive and negative applications; it is in our nature to apply anything that we learn to suit us, and, sometimes, our intentions may not be so noble. We can only hope that positive implementation of such technologies will eventually outweigh the negatives.

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