Memorial Day, Jungle OR edition

While out running yesterday afternoon, I chanced to hear the first hour of Bob Edwards Weekend, which featured stories from the fortieth reunion of the Navy’s Third Medical Battalion in Vietnam.  What great luck–two of my personal and professional interests (war and medicine) in a modern history context.  These guys lived a kind of daily horror that was played for laughs by M.A.S.H.  This audio documentary is definitely not the sitcom version, so be forewarned.  The story of twentieth-century warfare really is a Spy Vs. Spy drama, in which scientists and engineers devise better and more efficient ways of killing people, while at the same time scientists and physicians devise better and more efficient ways of saving people’s lives.

Don’t miss the story about the homemade defibrillator, depicted at right.  Wowza!  You can download the weekend podcast for free here.  See the photo gallery here, with photos from Dong Ha and China Beach, as well as pictures from the fortieth reunion in Charleston, S.C. earlier this month.  The men in these stories did incredible, lifesaving work in an impossibly deadly war zone, and they speak frankly about the dissociative mental state they had to cultivate in order to do their work.  The freshness of this audio documentary is in part due to the fact that these men haven’t discussed these events or told these stories until now, forty years later.


8 thoughts on “Memorial Day, Jungle OR edition

  1. The two pictures in this post didn’t open for me, Historiann. (Your illustrative images, I mean, haven’t looked at the linked ones in the gallery yet). Could be just my system, but usually they do. Happy Holidays.


  2. Hi Indyanna–I think I’ve fixed the problem. (I copied the photos the lazy way first time around.) Fratguy had the same problem–please do let me know if they’re still not loading up for you.


  3. I get the first one but not the second.

    The Robert Altman film of “M*A*S*H*” was a mixture of really offensive sexism, terrible patronizing toward Asians, and refreshing (at the time, and in the context of the Vietnam war) anti-authoritarian, anti-militarist irreverence. (A perfect Supposed Liberal Dood movie, in fact.) I can’t watch it any more, but forty years ago I broke up at the OR exchange: “Is this guy we’re operating on an officer or an enlisted man?” “An enlisted man.” “Make the stitches big.”


  4. Hi, rootlesscosmo–thanks for your comment. I think I’ve fixed the second picture now–sorry for the technical difficulties! (The defibrillator is just too cool, in a terrifying way, not to feature…)

    I like your analysis of M.A.S.H. the movie as a distillation of white male New Left politics: anti-war (natch), patronizing attitudes towards non-whites (check) and misogyny (check). M.A.S.H. the TV show toned down some of the sexism–I think it was actors Loretta Switt and Alan Alda who managed not only to subvert the sexism, but to insert some feminist messages into the show. As I recall, Margaret “Hotlips” Houlihan was a strong character who had several story lines in which she confronted the bitter fact that her career was limited in ways that men’s careers weren’t. Of course, they had to call her “Hotlips,” and force her into the humiliating positing of being the mistress of…*retch*…”Frank Burns,” played by the most unattractive actor on the set (Larry Linehan?), including Jamie Farr and the guy who played Radar O’Reilly!


  5. The second picture is the home made defribrillator, though it does look eerily like something from a Mappelthorpe exhibit. The knives substituted for paddles and the whole rig was plugged into a D/C source and used intraoperatively. When the chest is opened and the paddles are directly on the heart you don’t need nearly as much surface area (or currect for that matter)to jolt sick heart muscle into an organized rhythm. From a metaphorical perspective it represents the inginuity, determination, hutzpah (sp?), and lack of concern for personal safety that these folks showed in trying to keep these young men alive.
    See link below for the sad news of the death of one of these heros, Dr Erwin Hirsch of Boston Medical Center, a man I had the privilege of briefly working under. Ultimately a life incredibly well lived but a sad death. Surely his passing was far less pointless than those of the boys he failed to save.


  6. As I recall, Margaret “Hotlips” Houlihan was a strong character who had several story lines in which she confronted the bitter fact that her career was limited in ways that men’s careers weren’t.

    I saw only a few of the TV episodes. In the movie, though, Sally Kellerman’s “Hotlips” was a target, nothing else; when she finally objected she was made to look ridiculous doing it and her protest was brushed aside by the Commanding Officer. Ring Lardner Jr. got screenplay credit but disavowed the final version; on the other hand he was responsible for the repellent script of the Tracy-Hepburn “Woman of the Year” in which domestic tranquillity is restored by the woman’s failure to make waffles successfully.


  7. Both images are up and running now. I was on some kind of a Navy riverboat this afternoon in the Schuylkill River, not a hundred yards from where I live. Some kind of Memorial Day open-house, I guess. It looked ready for the scrap heap and all I could think was “Swiftboat,” but the young and enthusiastic hosts in dress whites had some sort of a technical name for it. They were enthralled with its various capacities. The multiple mounted machine guns looked as though they could saw the riverside condos into pieces, and it was scary to be asking technical questions, as you might with an exotic racecar. These things are designed to bring hideous firepower right to your little creek. It evoked for me the point in the first paragraph about the scientizing and technologizing of conflict. Mortal flesh wouldn’t stand that much of a chance against the metalics that I saw, and medicine would seem like not much more than a shamanistic gesture. And yet the current narrative is that they’re saving people who would have had no chance at all in Vietnam; as with WW II casualties in comparison with the Great War.


  8. Yes, Indyanna: the one good thing to come out of the current Iraq War is an improved ability to treat head and skull injuries, from what I’m reading. However, there is a whole new generation of amputees–a kind of injury that was getting pretty rare for women and men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s…

    Rootlesscosmo: Woman of the Year. That is a totally strange and frequently unwatchable movie, mostly because of the odd intrusions of domesticity–not just the ending that you cite, but also the odd 10-minute adoption of the 8-year old Greek war refugee. Pat and Mike is boring. Desk Set too. For Hepburn-Tracy action, I strongly prefer Adam’s Rib. (But truth be told, I actually prefer the movies she did with Cary Grant to anything she did with Tracy. Tracy was perhaps the first mismatch between leading man and leading woman of the sort that I’ve been complaining about in the modern movies! He was a good actor, not really a leading man type.


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