Pictures We Have Aren’t Ones We Want

December 19th, 2004 - by admin

Joan Ryan / San Francisco Chronicle – 2004-12-19 22:52:53

(December 19, 2004) — On my desk is the Dec. 9 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. I have it open to a five-page photo essay titled “Caring for the Wounded in Iraq.” The pictures were taken by doctors in the 274th Forward Surgical Team.

They are as grotesque as anything I have seen, and I can’t stop looking at them. I think I’m trying to fathom such horrific pain and disfigurement. If I study the pictures hard enough, maybe I can imagine what it is like to see your own flesh mangled and twisted into something monstrous.

The captions indicate that the photos are representative of certain kinds of injuries — a large-fragment wound to a leg, a spray of wounds to the face, arms and hands of a soldier wearing a Kevlar vest, wounds from “high- energy” gunshots to an abdomen and a knee.

I keep returning to two particular photos. In one, two doctors in surgical masks stand over a soldier on a table. One doctor is holding up a stringy, blackish-red, wet thing that looks like a small animal that has been disemboweled. Then you see that the disgusting thing is attached to the soldier’s body. It is his right arm.

His left arm is hooked to an IV. It is unscathed except for the bloody stump where his wrist and hand used to be. “Blast injury from exploding ordnance,” the caption says.

In the second photo, a doctor is hoisting the ends of two limbs. They look like legs, but the perspective is all wrong. The right foot has been torn in half and flipped over, bottom-side up. Embedded in a mass of dark wormy hash, you see the pad of the foot and toes lolling off the side of the soldier’s shin. It is as if the foot had been pushed up toward the leg until it ripped away from the ankle and landed face down on the shin.

The other foot is just the hash.

“A common type of injury associated with roadside improvised explosive device run over by a Humvee,” the caption explains.

Lost and Mangled Limbs: What the Lack of Armor Looks Like in Human Terms
I happened to see the photos the same day a soldier on his way to Iraq asked our secretary of defense why his Tennessee National Guard unit had to scrounge through landfills for scraps of metal and bulletproof glass to protect their poorly armored vehicles against roadside bombs. A senior officer in the unit said 95 percent of the unit’s trucks had insufficient armor.

According to this week’s Time magazine, just 5,910 of the 19,389 humvees in Iraq are fully armored. About 9,000 have been retrofitted with 1,000-pound “Armor Survivability Kits.” But there is nothing in the kits to reinforce the humvees’ floors. So soldiers remain vulnerable to explosive devices on the roads, which are nearly impossible to spot. Insurgents conceal them in orange crates, pieces of concrete blocks, even the carcasses of dogs.

Oh, well, said Donald Rumsfeld.

“You go to war with the army you have,” Rumsfeld famously answered the Tennessee soldier, “not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

I wanted to take Rumsfeld’s head and shove it into the photo spread. I am guessing he has not seen it or anything like it. If he had, he could not possibly be so casual and dismissive about the soldiers’ concerns.

When you look at the photos, you see the price we are demanding of the men and women sent over there. Knowing the price, the next logical step is to ascertain what we are getting in return. What do all those feet and arms and hands and eyes buy us? What do we get in exchange for the 1,000 empty chairs at tables across America, and the thousands more across Iraq?

Why Were Our Troops Sent to War Without Adequate Protection?
Maybe Rumsfeld and President Bush and the others who leapt into this war can take a break from awarding each other medals and walk us through the calculus of this equation. What is it we get from all this? And remind us again why we couldn’t wait until we had “the army you might want or wish to have”?

Maybe the Journal’s photos are so shocking because the war seems fairly mundane, even antiseptic, from our perch here in the States. The Bush administration still will not allow photographs of flag-draped coffins returning home from Iraq. Most Western photographers have left the war zone because it has become too dangerous, thus newspapers have few photos from which to choose when deciding what to publish.

And publications that do show wounded or dead soldiers are inevitably accused of being unpatriotic. They are not supporting the war effort. What would happen, the accusers say, if Americans had seen the horror of D-Day? Some realities, they say, should stay in the bunkers and the MASH units. If you regularly printed graphic photos of wounded and dead soldiers, no one would ever enlist. Who would fight our wars?

Maybe nobody, forcing us finally to tap into the world’s best and brightest to determine ways of achieving our goals without using lives and body parts as currency.

I wish every newspaper in America could have run the New England Journal of Medicine photos next to Rumsfeld’s mug shot on the day he shot off his mouth. It would have ruined some breakfasts, yes. But when our soldiers are dying horrible deaths and surviving unspeakable wounds, the least we can do is bear witness.

Joan Ryan is a feature columist at the San Francisco Chronicle. Write Ryan at

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