Caring for the Wounded

The New England Journal of Medicine is running a photo essay in this week’s edition entitled “Caring for the Wounded in Iraq.” Like the photojournalistic work I mentioned a few days ago, “Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq,” it’s a glimpse at the reality that hides behind statistics like the number of U.S. troops wounded in action (nearly 10,000).

You can find the photo essay here (or go here for a PDF version). The photographs are mostly unsparing clinical images of soldiers who have suffered severe trauma. “High-energy gunshot wound passing through knee” is one of the typically dispassionate captions. To me, the pictures testify to two things: the extraordinary destructive power of modern weapons, even the improvised ones wielded by the Iraqi guerrillas; and the near-miraculous capacities of medical technology. The doctors and nurses you see in the pictures are using every means at their disposal to save bodies torn apart by explosives and shrapnel. In many cases, they’re succeeding. (As “Purple Hearts” testifies, though, it’s not as easy to put the people back together.)

Once again, I’m reminded of one of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poems, “The Wound-Dresser.” The hospital scene and means of treatment he depicts are primitive by our standards. But the sense of heartbreaking destruction of lives is the same:

“The crush’d head I dress (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away),

The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,

Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard

(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!

In mercy come quickly).

“From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,

I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,

Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side-falling head,

His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,

And has not yet look’d on it.

“I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,

But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,

And the yellow-blue countenance see.

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,

Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,

While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.

“I am faithful, I do not give out,

The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,

These and more I dress with impassive hand (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame).”

7 Replies to “Caring for the Wounded”

  1. Dan: Very powerful stuff, the photos and the piece by Walt Whitman. I often wonder at what point the nation reaches a watershed and says enough is enough. I do hope that the guys in DC are correct in their assumptions and that all goes (reasonably) well for the Iraq project. But I wouldn’t bet more than 100 bucks on that and then only to pick up on the long odds. I would never bet the safety of a family member on it though. In the meantime, someone else’s kids are being maimed.

  2. jb: When I read your line, “meantime, someone else’s kids are being maimed,” I felt a shiver. I can’t imagine the outrage I would feel if my son were among those fighting in this poorly thought-out, badly executed, hubristic geopolitcal experiment/roll of the dice. We’re in, in deep, so I suppose bugging out now doesn’t make sense. But if the elections don’t come off reasonably well, and things don’t settle down in, say, six months or so, I think it might be time to walk. I know it will be time for me to get off my ass and start making some noise, and maybe a lot of other people who’ve been watching this thing disintegrate will do so, too.

  3. Pete: I am not trying to be flippant or glib in my assessment what is going on in Iraq. And the “bugout” will probably be an inevitability if things stay just as they are. I mean, how long can we pay for this mess? Our(overseas)creditors may pass us a note, telling us to knock it off. Not to mention loss of equipment and finally but not least, the loss of life. If I sound apathetic, it is because after everything was put out there for citizens to weigh last month, we went ahead and re-elected the guy who perpetrated the disaster. You know…the one about the captain who ran the ship into an iceberg then demanded the job of being charge of the lifeboats, because of his vast maritime experience.
    But yeah, you’re right, we really should get off our asses and make some noise, but nobody is doing it and short of taking it to the streets, I’m going to look out for the well being of my family and friends.
    The one thing that I find most galling about the war is that the armed forces are manned by vollunteers. We all have the right to demand wise leadership and that the country’s resources won’t squandered. But the individuals who vollunteer to ride around in their humvees, being shot at and maimed have an even greater right to demand thoughtful, wise leadership; trustworthy leadership that doesn’t turn their lives into a crapshoot. I can’t see how these guys in Washington have been wise in just about any of their decision making. But they are elected for the next four years. Sure, I care a great deal about “other peoples’ kids” and I can’t figure out, for the life of me, why citizens in this nation of ours aren’t in a rage about what is happening to the kids in these photos. It is just that…they aren’t.

  4. I think what we’re looking for in Iraq is a version of “peace with honor” (sorry for the Vietnam allusion). In this case, it will involve propping up what looks like an elected government just long enough that we can celebrate the march of freedom and the transformative power of liberty (pay no attention to those explosions in the distance; and that whirring sound overhead? it’s just shrapnel). That’s sort of what we have in Afghanistan. Karzai is the head of a brand-new democracy. It looks kind of funny that he can’t go anywhere in his newly democratic land without a crowd of foreign mercenaries (brought to you by DynCorp, a Computer Sciences Corp. company). But what’s important right now is that the believers can point to this stunning success (and it is kind of amazing, given the facts of just a few years ago, but of course today’s reality is a bit more complicated than the civics class democracy lesson the Bushites proclaim it to be). And that’s what’ll happen in Iraq: Once we can suppress incoming fire and other insurgent misbehavior long enough for Allawi or whoever to stand up and make a speech in front of a national assembly, then our job there will be done and we’ll withdraw. In both countries, it remains to be seen just how nature will take its course. As you can tell, I’m not an optimist.

  5. I’m not entirely pessimistic. Maybe a minor miracle will occur and the wheels will stay on the Iraq project, but the Vietnamization comparison is hard to avoid. I think it was William Safire, of all people, who said that the administration wasn’t looking to “cut and run” so much as it was looking to “cut and walk fast”.
    One thought that has ocurred to me is that the insurgents in Iraq will export their tactics to Afghanistan and anything that has been gained there will be squandered, Iraq being the template for fighting Americans.

  6. JB: Oh, I didn’t think you were being flippant. It was the actual contemplation of my boy being in this fray that gave me the shiver. Somehow I had maintained a distance from this war for nearly two years. I mean, I knew it was pretty bogus, and knew this gang in Washington was bumbling and untrustworthy; but I didn’t quite feel the horror of it. I guess I wanted, despite it all, to believe that maybe it could somehow all work out OK. I’ve pretty much given up on that hope.
    On a related note (or maybe it’s not related, but it just popped into my head): On Lou Dobbs tonight he snickered that the Castro regime was conducting war games and was boasting to the Cuban people that these were in preparation for a possible U.S. invasion. Lou seemed to think the idea that the United States would invade Cuba was completely and utterly ridiculous. He actually repeated, as news copy, almost word-for-word what the State Department’s guy, Boucher, said: That this is obviously and entirely an effort by Castro to distract Cubans from their economic woes. To which I say: Well, sure it is. I can hardly disagree with that. Still, let’s get out of our USA-flag-on-the-lapel mindset here for a minute and try to see things the way a country that the United States has expressed unending hostility toward might see it. I mean, the United States went in and waged war on Iraq basically without provocation. Given that, wouldn’t it be negligent of Castro not to prepare himself for an attack by the United States? Hell, that would be like the U.S. government, after receiving intelligence suggesting it would happen, not preparing itself for an attack by terrorists taking over airplanes.
    My point, I guess, is that we still don’t seem to understand how this war has changed (or, in an equally bad way, solidified) the world’s view of the United States. I think Dan’s intimation, that “success” may come but that it will be difficult to hold, is basically correct. But even if it works out a little better than that, or even a lot, I wonder if the way we went about this has forever damaged us and the ability of nations to work out their problems nonviolently.
    OK, off my soapbox.

  7. Pete wrote: “But even if it works out a little better than that, or even a lot, I wonder if the way we went about this has forever damaged us and the ability of nations to work out their problems nonviolently.”
    I kept thinking about this issue when I was reading the Baghdad Journal from Steve Mumford, the artist who’s mentioned in that “Portraits of Crazyworld” post. I don’t think the guy has an ax to grind, and what he depicts are a)many Iraqis who would love to live in a peaceful, sane society unmenaced by a dictatorial regime and b) U.S. troops who are doing their level best to build something amid all the mayhem. But: What I think when I read his account and similar ones is that our effort has long odds against it, at the very best, because the foundation of the whole thing is force. I don’t mean to go all Gandhian on this, but the lack of understanding we had of the situation going in, our continuing naivete about what money and backhoes and sacks of concrete can do, and our need to back up everything with the threat of gunships overhead doesn’t look to me like us winning. And you’re right that many, many people around the world must be looking at this and saying, hell, sure things are bad here, but we could be the next Iraq, and who in their right minds wants that?

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