The War We Don’t Want to See

Generation Kill

a miniseries written and produced by David Simon and Ed Burns, based on the book by Evan Wright
HBO, DVD, $59.99

Baghdad ER

a film directed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill
HBO, DVD, $19.98

Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery

a film directed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill
HBO, DVD, $24.98

In late October, about a week before the presidential election, a young man named Kris Goldsmith, who had served two tours of duty in Iraq, was forced to leave a street fair in Bellmore, Long Island, where he was distributing literature from the group Iraq Veterans Against the War. In a “To Whom It May Concern” letter written after the event and circulated on the Internet, Goldsmith noted:

I was displaying the pictures [from The Military Times] of all the service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last few weeks. To my knowledge, The Military Times is the only publication that prints pictures of those fallen warriors, and my purpose was to help the people of Bellmore put a face on the numbers.

According to Goldsmith, he was threatened with bodily harm by street fair staff if he didn’t remove the photographs and leave.

One wonders what the citizens who hounded Kris Goldsmith, or the officials who have refused to let photographers record the parade of flag-draped coffins coming off the planes at Dover Air Force Base, or anyone who believes that acknowledging the human cost of war is subversive, would make of a textbook published this summer by the Office of the Surgeon General. War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq is a collection of case studies of actual trauma experienced by actual people, soldiers and civilians, some of them children. Its purpose, according to the editors, “is to provide precise supplemental material for military surgeons deploying or preparing to deploy to a combat theater.” It documents, in the uninflected language of medicine, their horrific injuries—“facial lacerations,” “penetrating rectal injury,” “gunshot wound with loss of the elbow,” “80% body burn,” and “umbrella effect of a landmine blast” among them.

This 28-year-old male sustained an injury to his right leg from a high-energy blast,” begins the chapter on below-the-knee amputation. “His clothing was saturated with blood. Removal of his combat boots revealed a significant, grossly contaminated, soft-tissue injury and a poorly perfused foot.” On subsequent pages, interspersed with teaching points, clinical implications, and suggested reading, are full-color photos of legs that have been pulverized and feet that have been pulped, of flesh that no longer resembles flesh, of bone that hangs off the trunk like snapped branches.

These pictures, which were taken by doctors in the field with personal digital cameras, were not intended for publication. Though in most instances they are gruesome, they are not prurient. Nor are they editorial. Unfiltered, they are instructive, not only to those who may someday find themselves working in a MASH unit, but also to those of us who, like it or not, send them there to do that work. The photos show wounds—“Figure 4. Fragment of human rib removed from right scrotum”; “Figure 1. Wound showing evisceration of the small intestine”—that have never been seen in this way before.

This, in part, is a consequence of the proliferation of cameras, computers, and easy uploads, which have brought …

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