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War And Medicine

March 2023
1min read

The Face of Mercy
A Photographic History of
Medicine at War

by Matthew Naythons, Sberwin Nuland, and Stanley Burns, Epicenter/ Random House, 271 pages, $40.00 . CODE: RAN-19

The many grisly and poignant war pictures in this book have a redemptive side: Each war’s terrible new ways of doing battle have demanded new advances in medical treatment. The authors, all doctors, begin with the Civil War, when anesthesia made amputation much easier. This in turn gave rise to the prosthetics industry; in 1866 the state of Mississippi spent more than half its budget on artificial limbs. In Cuba during the Spanish-American War, Walter Reed, of the U.S. Army, figured out that mosquitoes carried the yellow fever that was laying waste his soldiers. World War I confronted field-hospital staffs with gas victims and the nervous disorders loosely called shell shock for the first time. The thousands of disfigured men from that war got the benefit of the beginnings of plastic surgery. In World War II came penicillin and effective blood banking; Korea and Vietnam introduced helicopters that could pluck the wounded from the deadliest jungle spot.

Despite its hopeful story, this is not a medical text, and war essays by Martha Gellhorn, Ward Just, and others break it up nicely. The book closes with a haunting formal portrait of the Ruined Faces Club a couple of years after the Great War ended. “Amid war’s mad incomprehensibility,” William Styron writes in the prologue, “it is perhaps best that we regard medicine, and the face of mercy it presents, as the only saving grace.”

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