Saturday, December 11, 2004

"Johnny Got His Gun"-Iraq Version

It has been a lot of years since high school. I don't really recall which English class I was taking when I read Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun". If you haven't read it, go and find a copy. As Elinor Hoefs comments:
Trumbo's premise is devastatingly simple: For 300 pages he puts you inside the head of a World War I veteran. We share Johnny's*** memories of life before the war. With him, we recall how he was swept up in the tide of patriotic fervor as war came closer and closer. He was sure that if his country would just give him a gun along with a bit of training, he could cross the ocean and find glory as he defeated the enemy.

And we also share, in relentless detail, the horrific nature of his present situation.

Johnny, you see, wound up in a trench in France as a shell exploded nearby. Johnny survived, but with a certain amount of collateral damage. He lost both legs, both arms, his face, his eyes, his ears, and his voice. He is the ultimate basket case.

Johnny got his gun, all right. And now everybody agrees he's a hero. The only thing is, he's also a monster--this ultimate basket case--tucked away in a veteran's hospital where nobody but the medical staff has to think about him.

Is war worth it? Is pride in any system of human governance that repeatedly leads to war justified? We all, experts and non experts, have various answers to those questions. Before you speak your own answer with too much confidence, I'd urge you to get a second opinion from Johnny. Lend him an ear, which he is in much need of.

Fiction? Yes. But we can dismiss it only because we choose not to think about the real Johnny's who are still tucked away in veterans' hospitals, well tended unto the end of their days of suffering.

And now comes the Iraq version. As depressing the thought is, the war is creating more Johnnies that are being treated in Veterans Hospitals. As the Kansas City Star reported:

It isn't that their injuries were less serious, a new report says. In fact, some young soldiers and Marines are now returning home badly maimed, with their faces, arms and legs blown off.

But they have survived thanks, in part, to armorlike vests and fast treatment from doctors on the move with surgical kits in backpacks.

“This is unprecedented. People who lose not just one but two or three extremities are people who just have not survived in the past,” said Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston who researched military medicine and wrote about it for today's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The journal also published a five-page spread of 21 military photographs that graphically depict the horrific injuries and the conditions under which these modern-day MASH surgeons operate.

“We thought a lot about it,” said the journal's editor, Jeffrey Drazen, and ultimately decided that the pictures told an important story.

In one traumatic case, Gawande tells of an airman who lost both legs, his right hand and part of his face. “How he and others like him will be able to live and function remains an open question,” Gawande writes.

Kevlar helmets and vests are two reasons for the high survival rate.

“The critical core, your chest and your abdomen, are protected,” said George Peoples, a Walter Reed Army Medical Center surgeon who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Paradoxically, what we've seen is devastating extremity injuries because people are surviving wounds they otherwise wouldn't have.”

By mid-November, 10,369 American troops had been wounded in battle in Afghanistan or Iraq, and 1,004 had died — a survival rate of roughly 90 percent. In the Vietnam War, one in four wounded died, virtually all of them before they could reach MASH units some distance from the fighting.

And we are not done with this war.

John Kerry, watch those soldiers backs. Pull them from the water. Pull our nation from the water. America and the world needs you now.



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