Survivable life

Just back from St Andrews – the video of the Neil Smith Lecture will be available online shortly, and I’ll post a notice when it’s ready – and so much to catch up on it’s not easy to work out where to start.

THEY-WERE-SOLDIERS_by-Ann-Jones_72

But this is as good a place as any: Ann Jones‘s new book, They were soldiers: how the wounded return from America’s wars (Haymarket, 2013):

After the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Ann Jones spent a good part of a decade there working with Afghan civilians—especially women—and writing about the impact of war on their lives: the subject of Kabul in Winter (2006). That book revealed the yawning chasm between America’s promises to Afghans and its actual performance in the country. Meanwhile, Jones was pondering another evident contradiction: between the U.S. military’s optimistic progress reports to Americans and its costly, clueless failures in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. In 2010-2011, she decided to see for herself what that “progress” in Afghanistan was costing American soldiers. She borrowed some body armor and embedded with U.S. troops. On forward operating bases she saw the row of photographs of “fallen” soldiers hung on the headquarters’ wall lengthen day by day.

At the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base she watched the grievously wounded carried from medevac helicopters to the emergency room and witnessed the toll that life-saving surgeries took on the doctors who performed them. She accompanied the wounded on medevac flights from Bagram to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, then on to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, and finally—for those who made it—back to all-American homes where, often enough, more troubles followed: violence against wives, girlfriends, children, and fellow soldiers; Big Pharma-induced drug addiction; murder, suicide, and the terrible sorrow of caretaker moms and dads who don’t know what happened to their kids. They Were Soldiers is a powerful account of how official American promises—this time to “Support Our Troops”—fall victim to the true costs of war.

Medevac

This dovetails perfectly with what I hope will be my new research project on caring for those wounded by war – combatants and civilians – between 1914 and 2014 and their precarious journeys away from the killing zones (see DOWNLOADS tab and scroll down).  As I’ve noted before, much of the critical commentary on modern war has been preoccupied with those killed – which is of course important – but the other casualties of war have all too often been marginalised.  It’s high time to supplement inquiries into what Judith Butler calls the constitution of  a ‘grievable life’ with others into the constitution of a ‘survivable life’.

Hence the vital importance of Ann’s book.  There’s an interview with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now here, and another with Truthout here, in which she deftly rejects the lazy politics in which the left supposedly cares only for ‘their’ civilians while the right cares for ‘our’ troops:

We worry – if at all – about how vets are treated when they return because of our mistaken notion that Vietnam vets suffered mightily from not being greeted as heroes. What Vietnam veterans truly suffered from was not their reception, but the war. That fact we tend to forget. Consequently, we think we can resolve all the possible nasty consequences of war by waving flags at airports as troops return. The deeper problem is that none of these veterans of the wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan – not one of them – should ever have been sent to war. But without a draft that can potentially strike any family in the country, those who have no fear that a family member may be compelled to serve are free to ignore the whole political and public relations process by which leaders drag the country into war and carry it on. War can be left to a supposedly “all volunteer” standing army – those poor kids with no job options or a shot at college – which is precisely what the founding fathers warned against, believing that a standing army would be used by autocrats to destroy democracy. That volunteer army, of course, is shadowed by a larger privatized for-profit army of mercenary contractors. The standing army of the poor and patriotic is alienated from the general public and left at the mercy of the president. Our recent presidents and their cronies, who hold a nearly unblemished record of evading military service, have thrown kids into war with an enthusiasm undampened by any real knowledge of what war is, while the most influential segments of the general public, feeling both grateful and guilty that their kids are safe, make no effort to restrain those war-loving leaders.

You can read an extract from They were soldiers, with a very helpful prefatory note from Nick Turse, at TomDispatch here:

In 2010, I began to follow U.S. soldiers down a long trail of waste and sorrow that led from the battle spaces of Afghanistan to the emergency room of the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, where their catastrophic wounds were surgically treated and their condition stabilized.  Then I accompanied some of them by cargo plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany for more surgeries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, or LRMC (pronounced Larm-See), the largest American hospital outside the United States.

Once stabilized again, those critical patients who survived would be taken by ambulance a short distance back to Ramstein, where a C-17 waited to fly them across the Atlantic to Dover Air Base in Delaware. There, tall, multilayered ambulances awaited the wounded for the last leg of their many-thousand-mile journey to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. or the Naval Hospital at Bethesda, Maryland, where, depending upon their injuries, they might remain for a year or two, or more.

Now, we are in Germany, halfway home.  This evening, the ambulance from LRMC heading for the flight line at Ramstein will be full of critical-care patients, so I leave the hospital early and board the plane to watch the medical teams bring them aboard.  They’ve done this drill many times a week since the start of the Afghan War.  They are practiced, efficient, and fast, and so we are soon in the air again. This time, with a full load.

 Two rows of double bunks flank an aisle down the center of the C-17, all occupied by men tucked under homemade patchwork quilts emblazoned with flags and eagles, the handiwork of patriotic American women. Along the walls of the fuselage, on straight-backed seats of nylon mesh, sit the ambulatory casualities from the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility (CASF), the holding ward for noncritical patients just off the flight line at Ramstein.
At the back of the plane, slung between stanchions, are four litters with critical care patients, and there among them is the same three-man CCAT (Critical Care Air Transport) team I accompanied on the flight from Afghanistan. They’ve been back and forth to Bagram again since then, but here they are in fresh brown insulated coveralls, clean shaven, calm, cordial, the doctor busy making notes on a clipboard, the nurse and the respiratory therapist checking the monitors and machines on the SMEEDs. (A SMEED, or Special Medical Emergency Evacuation Device, is a raised aluminum table affixed to a patient’s gurney.) Designed to bridge the patient’s lower legs, a SMEED is now often used in the evacuation of soldiers who don’t have any.
Here again is Marine Sergeant Wilkins, just as he was on the flight from Afghanistan: unconscious, sedated, intubated, and encased in a vacuum spine board. The doctor tells me that the staff at LRMC removed Wilkins’s breathing tube, but they had to put it back. He remains in cold storage, like some pod-person in a sci-fi film. You can hardly see him in there, inside the black plastic pod. You can’t determine if he is alive or dead without looking at the little needles on the dials of the machines on the SMEED. Are they wavering? Hard to tell.

They were soldiers is available as an e-book if, like me, you can’t wait.

3 thoughts on “Survivable life

  1. Pingback: Bodies on the line | geographical imaginations

  2. Pingback: War Stories | geographical imaginations

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