Almost two years ago, Mark De Rond, an ethnographer at Cambridge University in England, sent a manuscript to the Culture and Politics of Health Care Work series at Cornell University Press. As co-editor of the series, I reviewed the manuscript — Doctors at War — which has just been published . It was done in the form of a of field notes describing De Rond’s months embedding with surgeons in a field hospital in Afghanistan during what is euphemistically dubbed – in the US at least – Operation Enduring Freedom. In other words the US war in Afghanistan, which is being waged not only by the US military but also by allies from other countries like the British, who, with the Americans ran Camp Bastion. The British Ministry of Defense (MOD) had asked De Rond to go to Afghanistan to study teamwork among British and American surgeons in the field hospital at Camp Bastion. As he describes it in the book, Camp Bastion was “the most successful trauma unit anywhere in the world.”
From the moment I began reading, I knew how important this book was and the contribution it could make not only to the healthcare literature but also to the literature of war. The MOD agreed that De Rond had a great deal to contribute to our understanding of how people work together under stress and encouraged him to not only write a report but to turn his work into a book. Then when the MOD saw the book, the tune changed and the MOD tried to block its publication. De Rond was forced to get a legal opinion in order to proceed with publication.
When you read this book – and please, if you have any interest in the folly of war and its human cost, you must read this book – you will understand why we loved it and the MOD hated it.
In it De Rond follows a British surgeon whom he calls Jesus and his colleagues in their daily round of trauma surgery. As he reports, between 2006 and July 2013, “just short of 20,00 casualties to the field hospital.” These not only included military personnel but locals who were injured. These physicians had to treat enemy combatants as well as civilians, many of them children – collateral damage of the war on terror.
Which has produced its own terror. Day after day, they wade elbows deep into the blood and guts, veins, and limbs, of what this elective war has wrought. We see not only the amazing feats of modern trauma surgery – which thanks to modern technology and the skill of these surgeons, nurses, and other battlefield hospital personnel, save people who would have died immediately in other wars. We also see the horrific wounds and trauma with which they will have to cope for the rest of their lives. After only a short stay in Afghanistan, De Rond himself has to deal with the trauma of what he witnessed.
I urge you all to read this important book, which as Chris Hedges says in his foreword to Doctors at War, “shines a light on a reality we are not supposed to see. It is a reality, especially in an age of endless techno war, we must confront if we are to recover the human.”