Journey of a wounded soldier

I’ve written before about Harry Parker‘s Anatomy of a soldier – an extraordinary novel(for multiple reasons) that reconstructs the journey of a British soldier who steps on an IED in Afghanistan through the evacuation chain to Camp Bastion and on to Selly Oak in Birmingham (see also ‘Object Lessons’, DOWNLOADS tab).  I’ve also sketched out an ‘anatomy of another soldier‘, describing in similar terms the precarious journey of a soldier wounded on the Western Front in the First World War back to Blighty.  It’s part of my project on medical care and casualty evacuation from war zones – the Western Front, the Western Desert, Vietnam, and now Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

Much of my archival work (on the First and Second World Wars) has been done at the Imperial War Museum and the Wellcome Library in London, and now the IWM has provided a series of short but sharp insights into the journey of a wounded soldier from Afghanistan back to Britain.

It’s not the experiment that Harry conducts – which isn’t to disparage either of them, and in fact Harry did a reading from ‘Anatomy’ at the IWM – but works through the IWM’s signature mix of objects, documentary and interview.  It includes an interview with Corporal Harry Reid, recalling his experience of being wounded;

‘… a vague recollection of spinning round in the air, not sure if I did or not…  I lay on my back, looked down, I couldn’t see my legs at that stage, a big dust cloud all around, so I couldn’t really see anything, and I couldn’t hear anything…  I weren’t in any pain at that particular time, I just felt like shock and numbness, as if I’d walked into a door…

I looked across to this left hand, thinking right, I need to get a first aid kit out here, because your training kicks in straight away, in your right-hand pouch you’ve got your tourniquets, your first field-dressing, and your morphine…  I knew something violently had just happened… I looked across and this finger was hanging off … so I kept hold of that and I thought I’m not losing that as well…  I looked across at my right arm and it were twisted up around my back so then I shouted for a medic … but obviously I shouted but I couldn’t hear myself shouting, which was quite strange…

He crawled back towards me, risking his own life … and he gave me some morphine and started putting tourniquets on.  He put  a tourniquet on my arm, pulled it obviously really tight to stop the blood flow but I felt it pinch my skin … that felt painful, I couldn’t really feel anything else, so I told him not very politely to calm down a bit because it was pinching my skin…

Then I remember being in and out of consciousness..’

That last sentence is crucial; it turns out that one of the most traumatic after-effects of blast injuries is the inability to remember what happened between the initial shock and recovering consciousness in hospital.  Many of those wounded in the First and Second World Wars recalled only too well what they suffered during their evacuation, but later modern war is accompanied by powerful narcotics that combine analgesics with amnesia.    Here is Emily Mayhew in A Heavy Burden:

As ITUs [Intensive Therapy Unit] became more advanced, so did a condition known as ITU-PTSD –the stress induced, post-traumatically, by not knowing what has happened to the patient during the hours and days that are missing from their memory.

How much worse … would this be for the soldier who fell in the desert, was swooped away by MERT {Medical Emergency Response Team], saved and nursed at Bastion, flown half a continent away and then woken, not with their unit around them dusty and shouting, but their family, strained and weeping.

Recovering those lost hours, days and even weeks is a central part of my own work (see also ‘The Geographies of Sixty Minutes’ here).

So it’s good that the web page for Journey of a Wounded Soldier also features a triptych of images from the brilliant work of David Cotterell showing evacuation from Bastion to Britain (above), and interview clips addressing treatment and rehabilitation at Birmingham.

Deadly animation

IWM Strategic bombing campaign 14 December 1941

IWM Strategic bombing campaign 12 August 1944

Britain’s Imperial War Museum has produced a striking animation of the ‘strategic bombing campaign’ in Europe during the Second World War:

If the YouTube link (above) doesn’t work in your region, try this.  I can’t find any version on the IWM website – this version originates with the Daily Mail here – but an interactive version will be available to visitors at the reopened American Air Museum in Britain (at IWM Duxford) from the weekend.  The first bombing mission by the USAAF took place on 29 June 1942 against the Hazebrouk marshalling yards.

War wounds

London last week, Warsaw at the weekend and now Ostrava this week…  More on the last two soon, but while I was in London I gave a new version of “Gabriel’s Map” to Geography and War Studies at King’s College London.  A large and lively crowd, and I learned much from it all: many thanks to Nick Clifford and Richard Schofield for the invitation and the excellent hospitality.

Amongst other things, I had the opportunity to explain the continuities I see between the argument I’ve developed around the First World War and my research on the war in Afghanistan.  Many protagonists have come to represent contemporary war (‘later modern war’) as the hypostatisation of the ‘optical war’ I described on the Western Front, involving a reliance on visual imagery at every level (from the full-motion video feeds provided by remote platforms to the digital displays in command centres down to hand-held devices) and the virtual (sic) erasure of the body: you can see this in arguments as diverse as those proposed by Christopher Coker and James Der Derian.  Der Derian is rightly suspicious of all this, of course, and I tried to show in “Gabriel’s Map” that on the Western Front there co-existed a radically different apprehension of the battlefield – a haptic geography that relied on a bodily habitus and on sound and touch.  This is no less true of ground troops in Afghanistan today; it takes different forms, to be sure, but it’s clear from military blogs and memoirs that for most of those beyond the Forward Operating Bases war is as intimate, as corporeal and as visceral as it ever was.  I’m working my way through a series of memoirs and other materials now and, for all its problems (on which Nick Turse is exactly right), Sebastian Junger‘s War/Restrepo duo (the latter produced with Tim Hetherington) speaks directly to this question.

restrepo_ver2

This has the liveliest of political and ethical implications, but I’ve had other reasons not to leave the trenches behind… Jasper Humphreys at KCL’s Marjan Centre has proposed an extremely interesting project as part of next year’s commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War, drawing on the riches of KCL’s Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives.  The working title is the same – “Gabriel’s Map” – and the aim is to provide a different narrative of the war that develops the themes I sketched in the presentation, using video and social media to capture the attention of young people (and, I hope, the not-so-young…!).  This is exciting stuff, and I’ll keep you posted.

First World War centenaryThe centenary is itself an interesting project. According to the Guardian, the British government anticipates “unprecedented public interest” and, for once, they may have got something right (as opposed to Right); Andrew Murrison, the minister responsible for the commemorations, has both acknowledged the lively debates that continue to swirl around the conflict and expressed the hope that a central motif will be how the war played out at the ‘intimate level’.

More from the Imperial War Museum (itself being remodelled) here and from the excellent Australian War Memorial here.